“My Mamma told me to pick the right one.”
In 1982, Cheers first broke on the network sitcom circuit. It was a small Boston bar owned by a has-been baseball player living on the glory years he didn’t really have. It was the bar where everyone knows your name. Behind the bar there was Woody. Woody was pretty much a kid who looked up to the owner in an almost hero-like way. He was naive and was easily and often taken for a rube. But he was kind, and no matter how out of it he might be, there wasn’t an evil bone in that character’s body. It was all an act. Of course, it was a television show where Woody was played by Woody Harrelson. For crying out loud, even their first names were the same. It wasn’t hard for us to believe the two Woodys were one and the same. I know I did. It was an act, sure, but I didn’t know it was that good an act. We all found out just how good of an actor Woody Harrelson was when he stripped away kind, innocent Woody the bartender and took on the vicious role of Mickey Knox in in Oliver Stone’s brutal film Natural Born Killers. Later we found out that the actor’s father was a convicted hitman for the mob and was busted trying to take out a judge. Today Harrelson has proven his awesome range over and over again in dozens of impressive performances. But in 1994, I wasn’t prepared for Natural Born Killers or Mickey Knox, and so it’s a film that has remained seared in my brain since that day.
“When the people come here and they ask you who done this, you tell ’em Mickey and Mallory did it, all right? Say it.”
The story is about as simple as it gets. Mickey Knox (Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Lewis) are the kind of star-crossed lovers taken directly from the pages of a classic tragedy, even if they are more Bonnie and Clyde than Romeo and Juliet. It starts with the two taking out Mallory’s parents. Her father is played by Rodney Dangerfield, who was given permission to pretty much make up his dialog as he went along, and the performance is actually quite inspired. Mom is played by Edie McClug, and after meeting this couple, one can understand why they needed to be taken out. The couple escape into the world, where they go on a killing spree. They always leave someone alive to tell the tale, and tell the tale they do. Before long the couple have become living legends. The public express their love for the killers, and it isn’t lost even on the hapless characters that there’s something very twisted going on here. This was before the internet really got us on social media platforms, so at times the movie is quite prophetic.
Eventually the couple gets caught, and things just continue to get crazy from there. Robert Downey, Jr. plays the Geraldo-like Wayne Gale, who hosts a “reality” television show and scores a jailhouse interview with Mickey. The truth is Gale thinks of himself as a free spirit and imagines himself very much like Mickey. Of course, he’s deluding himself, but it’s enough to create a riot and a brea out for the couple with Gale and his camera recording the entire thing.
The film is populated with wonderful performances, all of them over-the-top. Tom Sizemore plays a detective who makes it his obsession to bring the couple to justice. Look. Every white whale has to have his Ahab. Tommy Lee Jones plays the warden, who happens to be in control of the prison until all hell breaks loose and drives him to a bit of insanity. And that’s the core of the film. Oliver Stone has managed to bring us unchecked insanity and somehow managed it just enough to hold it all together for a couple of hours. Not sure you could get away with this film today.
“You and me, we’re not even the same species. I used to be you; then I evolved. From where you’re standing, you’re a man. From where I’m standing, you’re an ape. You’re not even an ape. You’re a media person. Media’s like the weather, only it’s man-made weather. Murder? It’s pure. You’re the one made it impure. You’re buying and selling fear. You say “why?” I say “why bother?”
The film led to protests and controversy over the violence and more what many thought was the glorification of the violence. Make no mistake, it is a violent film, but if you pay attention, it has inherited that almost comic-book violence that it gets straight from Tarantino, who wrote the original script. He and Stone had a falling out over the rewrites, and he at one point expected to direct the film. He might not be happy with how it turned out, but his own stamp is absolutely a part of the film’s DNA, and his touch is unmistakable.
Another reason the film is so unsettling has nothing to do with the crazy performances or the script. The film was edited in a style Oliver Stone refers to as “vertical cutting”. Editor Hank Corwin found some intense footage, and these images are projected at various places in the film. The result is that the film looks more like a bad acid trip than a traditional film. That’s another reason I dismiss the calls for banning the film because of supposed violence it caused. No one becomes a serial killer by watching a movie. That stuff is already deep inside, and Oliver Stone could not have done anything more to broadcast the fact that this is a fantasy … a nightmare, if you will. If you take the film too seriously, you’re missing out on what makes it so brilliant.
Natural Born Killers is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 80 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm, so is native 4K. This one is a little hard to judge. There’s a lot of material here in various stages of quality so that the unreal aspect of it all makes any problems here a true part of the atmosphere and experience. With that said, the HDR absolutely pulls out color that I quite honestly can’t find in earlier releases. Reds in particular pop. Black levels are all over the place. At times the film is intended to be muddy. The print itself is clean with the various levels of grain a part of the original experience, and it does change. There are times the film is over-lit, particularly in the end scenes in the desert. There’s an obvious intent here to make you unsettled, and the image presentation does just that.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is an amazing maze of audio experiences. The mayhem is certainly present here, and I think it’s very much akin to being in a madhouse, which is exactly where they wanted you to be from the beginning. Dialog cuts for the most part, but there are moments people are talking over each other, and that’s how it’s intended to be. Sound design is unique among any of the films I’ve seen before or since. All I can say is separation is excellent, and it’s all there in the purest form you are ever going to find it.
The extras are pretty much ported over from earlier versions. You get three discs. The UHD basically has the film, while a Blu-ray disc delivers the extended cut, while another Blu-ray delivers the theatrical cut.
The one thing I still love about this film is that so much is happening that you can’t fail to find new stuff every time you watch the film. I don’t care if you’ve seen it 50 times; you will find something new. The increased resolution makes that even more likely here. It’s a treasure hunt in a world of madness. What more could you want for a couple of hours of entertainment? It’s not a film about right or wrong. “Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong; they just don’t give a damn.”