The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents November 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Where the Wild Things Are
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Natural Born Killers
North by Northwest
ASC Close-Up
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Unrated Director’s Cut
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Warner Bros., $28.99

A director who has worked in a wide variety of genres, from horror (The Hand) and war (Platoon) to film noir (U-Turn) and sports (Any Given Sunday), Oliver Stone is characterized, above all else, by his range. Though he is often pigeonholed as a political polemicist because of movies like JFK and Nixon, Stone is closer in spirit to the Hollywood filmmakers of the classical studio system; like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and others, he has made a point of injecting his personal preoccupations into recognizable popular formats, challenging himself by moving from the intimate to the epic. It’s hard to think of another director who pushes himself and his audience harder to find new challenges with each subsequent piece of work.

Stone’s diversity was never more evident than in 1994, when he followed the contemplative, spiritual Vietnam melodrama Heaven and Earth with the confrontational, nihilistic crime drama Natural Born Killers. Based on a script by Quentin Tarantino that Stone, David Veloz and Richard Rutowski heavily rewrote, Natural Born Killers tells the story of Mickey and Mallory, young mass murderers who are deeply in love — and deeply disturbed. Riffing on romantic fugitive movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, as well as Roger Corman exploitation flicks and more serious explorations of violence like A Clockwork Orange, Stone follows Mickey and Mallory as they shoot, stab and slash their way across the American Southwest. All the while they (and the audience) are bombarded with images of 20th-century chaos that not only play on television sets, but also seem to be projected onto the landscape itself. Stalin and Hitler give way to O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers in a sensory assault that raises complicated questions about the relationship between mass communication and violence.     
Many movies that are controversial in their time often seem tame and irrelevant years later, but Stone’s depiction of a media-saturated age in which violence and cruelty drive news coverage and that coverage, in turn, encourages desensitization is more relevant today than it was at the time of the picture’s release. Like The Wild Bunch and Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers retains its power to provoke and disturb decades after the fact because, like those two films, its shock value derives not from base sensationalism but from a profound understanding of the dark side of human nature that civilization attempts to obscure and repress. Stone’s movie is pure id, and his fearless celebration of Mickey and Mallory’s romantic spirit aligns with his equally fearless presentation of brutality to create an unsettling experience in which the audience is forced to question its own views about violence and violence’s relationship to society. (Stone’s refusal to provide easy answers is undeniably one reason why the picture repulses as many viewers as it engages.)

Director of photography Robert Richardson, ASC, matches Stone’s conceptual audacity with a visual style as radical as anything ever seen in a major studio release. Mixing black-and-white and color; celluloid and video; 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film stocks, Richardson creates a collage effect in which every image contains both its own internal beauty and a symbolic function as part of a larger social statement. He also uses lighting to convey inner states in conjunction with what Stone calls “vertical editing” — a character will appear one way in a naturalistically lit scene, but a brief cut in the middle of that scene to a different film stock and lighting set-up reveals the way that character really feels about the situation. Richardson’s mastery of dozens of different cinematic idioms makes Natural Born Killers one of those movies that, like Citizen Kane or The Conformist, can be endlessly studied and analyzed by film students who want to broaden their visual literacy. In this one movie, scenes are shot like sitcoms, action flicks, news broadcasts, avant-garde experimental films, 1940s noir and more. It is a stunning tapestry that feels surprisingly cohesive, thanks to the movie’s overall message about the pervasiveness of mass media in our lives.

The breadth of Richardson’s imagery is impeccably displayed on the Blu-ray disc’s high-def transfer of Stone’s director’s cut, an unrated version of the film that contains four additional minutes and more than 100 extra shots. The saturated colors of the film’s more stylized sequences are vibrant and vivid; the (relatively few) straight realistic scenes are appropriately subtle, and the grain of the 8mm and 16mm shots is well preserved and closely resembles the film’s theatrical release prints. Just as the movie juxtaposes image upon image in many of the compositions, the multifaceted soundtrack often plays multiple songs at the same time, along with layered effects and dialogue tracks. Instead of coming across as cacophonous or confusing, this intricate sound design has total clarity on the disc’s remastered Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, with strong separation and a powerful use of the rear channels in the picture’s many action set pieces.
As is often the case with Stone’s films, the Blu-ray is packed with compelling supplements. The director provides a new introduction to the film and an excellent 22-minute documentary, NBK Evolution: How Would It All Go Down Now?, that examines the ways the film might be made differently in the age of Twitter, Facebook and cell-phone videos. The disc also carries over numerous extra features from previous DVD releases, including a thought-provoking commentary track by Stone, 24 minutes of deleted scenes (inexplicably presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and an alternate ending. Also included are an 11-minute segment from The Charlie Rose Show, the half-hour making-of documentary Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers and a beautifully illustrated booklet containing production notes and commentary, with a particularly illuminating statement of purpose by Stone. A theatrical trailer completes the top-notch package.  

<< previous || next >>