Twenty years ago this week, Oliver Stone lit a stick of cinematic dynamite in the theaters of America with the release of his abrasive, divisive, and controversial film Natural Born Killers. Based on a script by American cinema’s then-new enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino (it was a loose adaptation: he only got story credit in the end), and directed by the always outspoken Stone, the film was practically engineered to stir controversy, even on its release in the sleepy end of August. And indeed, the film caused an impact that left aftershocks for years, if not decades.
Tarantino’s screenplay focused on Mickey and Mallory (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), husband-and-wife mass murderers who become a media phenomenon after a cross-country killing spree. When Stone came on board, he and partners David Veloz and Richard Rutowski heavily rewrote the script (much to Tarantino’s displeasure), amping up the media satire. By the time the film hit theaters — after having been trimmed by four minutes to avoid an NC-17 from the MPAA — it couldn’t have been better placed to get attention. After all, the previous months had given America the bizarre spectacle of Tonya Harding’s assault on Nancy Kerrigan and live coverage of O.J. Simpsons’ attempted getaway in the infamous white Bronco.
Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, 1994
As Stone wrote at the time, “When we set out to make Natural Born Killers in late 1992, it was surreal. By the time it was finished in 1994, it had become real.” But he didn’t realize quite how real, as the movie — which would gross $50 million at the box office — soon found itself at the center of the kind of media firestorm it had set out to satirize. In March 1995, not long after the film was released on VHS, 18-year-old Benjamin James Darras and his 19-year-old girlfriend Sarah Edmondson traveled from Oklahoma to Tennessee on a shooting rampage of their own, killing a cotton-gin manager and paralyzing a convenience-store clerk. The pair was swiftly arrested, and it emerged that, shortly before their violent spree, they’d taken LSD and watched Natural Born Killers.
Darras and Edmondson were the first to be dubbed Mickey-and-Mallory “copycats,” but they wouldn’t be the last. As many as 14 separate crimes over the next fifteen years were linked by the media to the movie, from Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who used ‘NBK’ as a codename for their plans) to Jeremy Allan Steinke, who, with his 12-year-old girlfriend, killed her parents and younger brother — allegedly after watching the movie the night before and vowing to go “Natural Born Killer on her family.”
Movies had been accused of inspiring violence before: President Reagan’s attempted assassin John Hinckley had been obsessed with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Stanley Kubrick asked that A Clockwork Orange be withdrawn from release in Britain after the film was linked to a series of alleged copycat crimes. But Natural Born Killers was something else: A brutal, unapologetically violent major-studio movie (it was produced by Warner Bros.) which not only painted a pair of mass-murderers as heroes, but also let their violent deeds go unpunished (the film concludes with a flash-forward scene of Mickey and Mallory, now parents, taking their brood on a road trip — an alternative ending, included on the DVD, has the couple killed by the very same inmate that helped them break out of prison).
Even desensitized viewers raised an eyebrow, and with the ongoing culture wars — and growing scrutiny on Hollywood from politicians and pundits — Stone’s film became a focal point for charges of moral irresponsibility and was the target of a major lawsuit: in March 1996, Byers and her attorneys filed suit against the director and Warner Bros., among others, alleging they shared culpability in her shooting by inspiring Darras and Edmondson’s violent actions.
The case achieved an even higher profile when attorney and bestselling novelist John Grisham, who’d been a friend of Bill Savage — the murdered cotton-gin manager — attacked Stone and the movie. Grisham (no stranger to Hollywood, thanks to big-screen adaptations of The Firm and The Client) argued that continued legal action could help create a sea-change in movie violence, writing: “It will take only one large verdict against the likes of Oliver Stone, and his production company, and perhaps the screenwriter, and the studio itself, and then the party will be over.”
After years of arguments over whether the film was protected under the First Amendment, both suits were eventually dismissed in 2001 (four years after Byers had passed away from cancer). And Darras, who is still serving out his sentence and is now a repentant born-again Christian, has called the link to the movie “an invention of defense lawyers,” saying that the pair also watched the more innocuous Fantasia and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on the night in question. But the film’s reputation has never entirely recovered.
Both Stone and Tarantino have stuck to their metaphorical (and literal) guns in the nearly two decades since Natural Born Killers' release: their recent movies, Django Unchained and Savages, were both bloody and R-rated. Last year, Tarantino said on NPR’s Fresh Air that “Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.” Stone, meanwhile, acknowledged to the Guardian in 2002, that a film can influence a viewer, but suggested, “it’s not a film’s responsibility to tell you what the law is. And if you kill somebody, you’ve broken the law.”
Ultimately, Stone has always emphasized that the film was, first and foremost, a critique of the media’s reaction to — and celebration of — the likes of Mickey and Mallory. In the same Guardian interview, he said “Natural Born Killers was never intended as a criticism of violence. Violence is in us — it’s a natural state of man. What I was doing was pointing the finger at the system that feeds off that violence, and at the media that package it for mass consumption.”
It was hard to miss his point in the movie itself: looking back after twenty years, it stands as blunt-force satire, entirely unsubtle about its message, and less effective for it. There’s no room for nuance in Stone’s worldview, from his simplistic points about Mickey and Mallory’s abusive backgrounds causing their criminal behavior, to the virtually cartoonish performances from Robert Downey, Jr. (playing a sleazy Australian news anchor) and Tommy Lee Jones (starring as a prison warden, and acting more over-the-top than he did in the following year’s ham-fest Batman Forever). And one can’t also help think that the director was trying to have his cake and eat it too: he stacks the deck, with the system that seeks to repress Mickey and Mallory (as represented by both Jones, and Tom Sizemore as a psychotic cop) being far more evil than the murderers, which seems to be an attempt to excuse their behavior. Stone wags his finger at his anti-heroes while simultaneously glorifying them.
But Stone’s contention that “people can be ignited by anything” (comparing the “scapegoating” of the movie to the defense of Dan White, who claimed that eating too many Twinkies had caused him to kill Harvey Milk) is a good one: millions of people have watched Natural Born Killers without going on to cause harm to others. And while the film has dated badly in many respects — most notably in its hyperactive Bonnie-And-Clyde-gone-MTV style, which is as exhausting now as it was exhilarating then — it’s also felt more and more prescient as time’s gone on.
Two decades years have gone by since the film’s release. Round-the-clock news cycles have gotten hungrier (not the least with the influence of, and too-often-ensuing misinformation from, social media). Basic-cable true-crime shows like the one Downey, Jr.’s character presents have only grown more popular, to the extent that there’s an entire network, Investigation Discovery, now devoted to them. Mass-murderers have made the cover of Rolling Stone, and inspired online fanbases. Stone might have been making his points with the delicacy of a sledgehammer, but it feels like everyone should have been paying more attention nevertheless.
Photo credits: © Everett Collection, © Getty Images 1994