‘Natural Born Killers’ Turns 20: Shocking Then, True Now
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.”