CINEMA: Stone Crazy

Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is wild and demonic -- and the work of a virtuoso

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Has everybody gone nuts? Is violence the way we resolve every domestic grievance, or is it just the quickest way to get on TV? With the Bobbitts, the Jacksons, the Menendez clan and that favorite new horror sitcom, The (O.J.) Simpsons, the American family has entered its postnuclear stage. Talk shows offer quack catharsis from every form of spousal and parental abuse. We're shouting at each other in National Enquirer headlines and have promoted tabloid newspapers and TV programs, once on the fringe of journalism, up to its hot center. It's Armageddon with commercial breaks. Why, the whole bloody mess could be straight out of an Oliver Stone movie.

Now it is. Natural Born Killers, the new outrage from Hollywood's most audacious auteur, takes a wild look at America's infatuation with twisted minds. The $34 million movie is so manic, so violent, so seemingly at one with the subject it satirizes, that Warner Bros. was reportedly spooked about a potential fire storm. Now the execs say they are feeling better. "I'm encouraged and excited," says marketing boss Rob Friedman. "The media response has been overwhelmingly positive."

Natural Born Killers -- in shorthand, NBK, to echo Stone's nutsy-greatsy JFK -- traces the odyssey of love-thugs Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as they terrorize the Southwest and mesmerize America's couch spuds. Like Bonnie & Clyde, Badlands and a zillion tortured teen movies of the '50s, NBK creates two doomed maniacs busy mythologizing themselves. "We got the road to hell in front of us," Mickey tells his bride, and he's not lying. These kids get their kicks on Route 666; when they go traveling, the devil thumbs a ride.

Three men want them bad, which is the only way Mickey and Mallory come. A brutish detective (Tom Sizemore) hopes to capture these miscreants and maybe write a best seller about it. A tabloid-TV newsman (Robert Downey Jr.) figures he can exploit their exploits, turning this Mansonized Romeo and Juliet -- 52 murders, no regrets -- into media darlings. A crazed warden (Tommy Lee Jones) is determined to achieve fame as the man who put them to death. It's the ideal recipe for a Stone-crazy parable of greed and abuse. Shake well, pull the pin and stand back.

Except, of course, that Stone doesn't let you stand back. NBK plunders every visual trick of avant-garde and mainstream cinema -- morphing, back projection, slow motion, animation and pixillation on five kinds of film stock -- and, for two delirious hours, pushes them in your face like a Cagney grapefruit. The actors go hyper-hyper, the camera is ever on the bias, the garish colors converge and collide, and you're caught in this Excedrin vision of America in heat. The ride is fun too, daredevil fun of the sort that only Stone seems willing to provide in this timid film era. NBK is the most excessive, most exasperating, most ... let's just say it's the most movie in quite some time.

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