Oliver Stone’s Savages is a powerfully visceral moviegoing experience: a gritty, gorgeous story about pot growers in California, crime lords in Mexico and the perversion of the modern-day drug wars. It’s a tailor-made subject for Stone, who knows all about drug-themed Hollywood thrillers and set the standard for them in his early years as a screenwriter-for-hire; he dealt with hashish in Midnight Express, cocaine in Scarface and heroin in Year of the Dragon. Now comes this movie, packed with sexy leading stars and slam-bang action sequences. Unusually youthful in point-of-view for a film made by a 65-year old director, it’s a masterful Hollywood entertainment, as well as a refreshing directorial comeback—this is Stone’s best movie since Nixon.
Savages has been described by some critics (including this critic and this critic) as a departure for Stone—a conventional genre picture with “no message”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie is a single-minded assault on the drug wars, which, Stone argues, hurt more than they help; they lend assistance to power-hungry drug lords (and greedy servants of the law) while addicts and manufacturers are jailed, raped, tortured and decapitated. “This is not a war on drugs,” Stone told Matt Zoller Seitz. “This is a war for money. It’s being fought in Mexico for money, and it’s being fought in the United States for money — the United States being the biggest sap of all, because we give the most.”
The movie is based on the novel by Don Winslow, which I read at the beginning of the summer and finished in a couple of weeks, finding it damn-near-impossible to put down. Part of my interest in reading the book stemmed from the fact that I had never gone into one of Stone’s movies with prior knowledge of the source material before; I was curious to see how well Stone’s vision of the story would match up with my own. The book is a highly-recommended page-turner that raises serious moral questions about torture, drugs and the occasional necessity for violence in the world, and while the film doesn’t quite broach the deepest depths of its source material, Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Winslow and Shane Salerno) comes closer to it than perhaps any other filmmaker could have.
The heroes of Savages are three California pot-growers in their 20’s: Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ophelia (Blake Lively). They are the three greatest pot growers in the world. Ben is the botanist, the brains behind the science of marijuana growth. Chon is the Iraq War veteran with military connections enabling him to import the highest-quality weed all the way from Afghanistan. Ben is the Buddhist who takes 99% of the violence out of the weed business. Chon is the other half—the backup who always deals violently with anyone left who’s refusing to cooperate. And Ophelia, nicknamed “O.,” is the playmate sleeping with both of them—the glue holding their business partnership together, so to speak, and quite possibly the only thing maintaining their sanity as they continue to operate in an increasingly dangerous business. In opening voiceover narration, she summarizes the two boys’ worldviews on the basis of their sex lives: “Chon fucks. Ben makes love.”
Then, one morning, an email is sent to Chon’s laptop, and it changes everything. It’s a video of eight decapitated Mexican heads all in a row, and a message warning them that they have one last competitor standing in their way: the Baja Cartel of Mexico. They’re demanding Ben and Chon come and work for them, or else. A meeting is held, the boys turn down the offer, and the cartel quickly makes plans to teach them a lesson. “I found their weakness,” determines Elena (Salma Hayek), and pretty soon Ben and Chon are once again staring horrified at the screen of Chon’s laptop—this time, because O. has fallen into the clutches of the cartel’s right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), while a synchronized voice threatens decapitation unless the boys reconsider their answer.
At the time I was reading Winslow’s book, I found this to be an irresistible premise for American fiction. We still live in a country that frowns upon marijuana as a taboo substance, even despite the admissions of our current president to having experimented with it during his youth ("I inhaled frequently. That was the point”). The genius of Savages is that it’s impossible for us not to sympathize with Ben and Chon; their line of business makes them criminals according to the law, and yet we expect this law to be overturned in our generation any day now. The timing of this movie is a key factor in its success. If pot were legal in America, we would have gotten a much different movie, in which Ben and Chon summon the help of the U.S. government as they handle negotiations to free O. (a convention we’ve seen in just about every hostage thriller). But because marijuana is still illegal in the U.S., Ben and Chon’s only option is to take matters into their own hands; for them to consult the authorities would be out of the question. Indeed, out of all of the film’s villains, perhaps the most evil is Dennis (John Travolta), the slimeball federal agent who accepts a bribe from the boys every week and is the only thing keeping them from doing time in prison just because of the plants they grow.
The film does for the drug cartels what Stone’s Any Given Sunday did for professional football, portraying it as a system so brutal a man’s eye can literally pop out of its socket at any given moment. These people will kill for money and for love. If Ben seeks nonviolent solutions, then Chon is far more trusting of his primitive instincts. He’ll do whatever it takes to get O. back, even if it means sticking a gun in his own mouth. While I would have liked more of the back-and-forth arguments about violence waged between Ben and Chon in Winslow’s book, Stone adapts enough of them to make his point. As Ben, Aaron Johnson has a great scene where he sobs hysterically after watching the blood of a Mexican thug blow up in his face; he absolutely nails the paralysis of a Buddhist watching his own system of values come crashing down before him. Kitsch, as Chon, is cool and quiet in a Steve McQueen sort of way; those who complained of his “uncharismatic” performance earlier this year as the hero of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (which I loved) will find him more agreeable here, in a role where he earns charisma by playing an antihero instead. But the film’s most jaw-dropping portrayal of a savage is delivered by Demián Bichir as the cartel’s messenger, Alex, for reasons I will not divulge here, except to say that he has a scene so painful and harrowing, I was on the verge of tears watching it.
I have never bought the argument tossed around by Stone’s most fervent detractors that he’s too masculine a filmmaker to write strong roles for women; such critics ignore Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly Hayslip in Heaven and Earth, Joan Allen as the First Lady in Nixon, Cameron Diaz and Ann-Margaret as the Miami Sharks’ owners in Any Given Sunday, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a 9/11 survivor’s pregnant wife in World Trade Center. It should be said, however, that Savages is Stone’s finest hour to date for female roles; there has never been this many interesting women in a Stone film before. As Elena, Salma Hayek is not merely playing an entertaining femme fatale cartoon (as Jennifer Lopez was in U Turn). No, Hayek brings out the humanity of Elena; this is a woman constantly looking over her shoulder in macho Mexico, struggling to remind her male enemies who’s boss, coping with the lack of attention her teenage daughter (Sandra Echeverría) pays to her ("She is ashamed of me, and I am proud of her for it"). Blake Lively makes O. not an annoying bimbo, but a street-smart girl who learns from her nightmarish experience in captivity. The fact that Lively has a reputation as a posh actress makes her all the more appropriate for the role as opposed to somebody like Jennifer Lawrence, who is a fine actress herself and was originally intended to play O., but would have been less effective; her roles in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games suggest the charisma of a tomboy, rather than somebody as glamorous as O.
Del Toro, as Lado, plays what is unquestionably the most fearsome gigantic Latino in any American film since Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men, and you can feel the dread enveloping the audience whenever he appears onscreen. In one scene, he is tasked with the duty of slowly feeding bits and pieces of steak to O. on the sharp prongs of a fork; it’s a moment so simple and yet so terrifying, we fear he might jam it down her throat. Another of the film’s most amusing scenes has Del Toro and Travolta, as Dennis (the actor’s greatest role in years), alone together in a luxurious kitchen while the two middle-aged men decide to strike a deal—one because he can, the other because he doesn’t have a choice.
For a $40 million film, Savages appears to be doing pretty well at the box office despite some truly nasty criticisms being mounted against the film on IMDB, The Huffington Post and the like—many of them over the film’s controversial ending (which is only half-faithful to Winslow’s novel). I won’t outright spoil how the film ends, except to say that it took me completely by surprise watching it in the theater, where I wondered if Stone was paying homage to his old Scarface pal Brian De Palma’s 2002 film-noir Femme Fatale, which employs a similar climactic technique. But I have no way of knowing at the moment if Stone ever even saw that movie, so in the meantime I’ll come up with a theory of my own.
I think Stone is making a point that Shakespearean tragedies don’t always get to end in, well… tragedy. That sometimes reality can be harsher, even when nobody has died. Think about it: the drug wars are a form of prohibition. What does prohibition do? It sends the crime rate skyrocketing. It punishes customers and rewards figures in positions of power (on both sides of the law). Stone feels the need to emphasize this, and so he ends the film in an unconventional way—in which villains profit, “good guys” are disgraced and justice is not served. The ending of Savages has been criticized by some as “sentimental”. I think it is anything but sentimental. While I’m not entirely sure what influenced Stone’s decision to play a cover version of “Here Comes the Sun” by Yuna in the end credits, consider this line in the song’s lyrics: Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces. And then retrace back to the ending. Who is smiling at the end of the film? Who isn’t?
Savages has restored Stone’s rightful place in Hollywood as one of America’s most important filmmakers. Looking back, his career since the late 90’s brought forth some decent movies and some lesser ones, but nothing like this that was worthy of his earlier, stronger work from the late 80’s and early 90’s. U Turn was goofy genre fun. Any Given Sunday was a fascinating mess. Alexander was something of a bore (although the 2007 Final Cut is worth watching). World Trade Center was noble and uplifting. W. was impressive. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was entertaining, but slight. All of these films were either gems or failures, but none of them were masterpieces. This one is.
I’ve been a casual Oliver Stone fan since I was a young teenager, but I didn’t get around to seeing Natural Born Killers until 2010, when I was 19 years old. Looking back, it was the one movie in Stone’s filmography that I was simply too afraid to see, despite my strong admiration for many of his other films. Some had told me it was one of the worst movies ever made. Others told me it was a masterpiece. Now, after three viewings of the film, I have to say: I agree with the latter.
Stone’s latest film, Savages, is all set to be released in the U.S. this weekend; having read the book by Don Winslow, I can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to resurrect age-old debates about Stone’s approach to cinematic violence, and whether or not he has a problem with pushing it too far. I suspect critics’ personal feelings about Stone as a whole have tended to be a factor in their perception of the ways he handles violence in some of his movies. Because I always try to go into a Stone release with a clear understanding of what he is trying to achieve (even when the end result is a failure, such as the theatrical cut of Alexander), I wonder if maybe I’m guilty of a bias, in that I largely notice only the good things about the ways he handles violence in a film like Natural Born Killers, and very little of the supposed flaws to his approach. Indeed, for some, Natural Born Killers was an exploitative and gratuitous film, so irresponsible in the way Stone handled violence that many critics lost faith in him soon afterward.
Jim Emerson, one of my favorite film critics, is among them, and, in a 2008 piece captioned, "Why doesn't a new Oliver Stone release matter any longer?" seemed undeniably pleased that Stone's more recent films have no longer been getting the attention they used to. Emerson's three-part-dismissal of Natural Born Killers, published for his Cinepad site in the mid-90’s, was the first negative review of the film that I began to think seriously about (up until then I had spoiled myself only with the more positive reviews by such critics as Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy). Emerson opened his three-part piece with this argument:
A lot of people still consider Oliver Stone to be a serious political filmmaker. I used to -- up until I saw Natural Born Killers. Then I saw him for what he really is: a sensationalist -- an exploitation filmmaker who, instead of making movies about zombies and bikers and big-busted women in prison, applies his exploitation-film sensibility to fragments of American history or pop culture. His style was perfect for Platoon as a way of immersing you in the disorienting sensations of combat. And even the senseless hodge-podge of film stocks and techniques that Stone applied to JFK seemed appropriate for a movie about piecing together a crazy quilt of conspiracy theories.
But with Natural Born Killers, Stone revealed his true nature -- not just in his relentlessly pandering and derivative "stylistic" doodling, but in the way he took all the satirical energy and purpose out of Quentin Tarantino's original script. In Stone's hands, Natural Born Killers was no longer about the way society (and particularly Hollywood filmmakers) glorify murderers and then sell them back to the public as celluloid rebels; it's about Oliver Stone striking back at the press who have begun to see through him, and a desperate (and apparently successful) attempt to cash in on the middle-brow, MTV-bred youth market by force-feeding them trippy visuals -- and by riding Tarantino's "hipster" coattails.
I have to disagree with Emerson’s argument that Stone’s film lacks the “sale and glorification of murderers” theme that was present in the original Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Consider the following: about a quarter into the film, Stone introduces us to Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), a news reporter with a Robin Leach accent who hosts the tabloid TV show American Maniacs. True to Tarantino’s original screenplay, this television show is shown doing precisely what Emerson argues Stone’s film shies away from exposing: the glorification of serial killers who are sold back to the public through entertainment.
In one American Maniacs episode, for example, Wayne Gale sensationalizes the murder of a police officer by the film’s infamous serial-killing duo, Mickey and Mallory Knox. The episode grossly dramatizes the murder, portraying the ensuing police chase of Mickey and Mallory (who are played by American Maniacs actors) as though it were an action sequence straight out of a Roger Corman picture. Another cop, also played by an actor (Dale Dye—Stone’s military advisor on Platoon), recalls his partner’s murder outside a donut shop as he was carrying out a cup of coffee and “my bear claw.” He chokes up as all-too-obviously fake tears begin streaming down his face—a moment which Stone, on the film’s DVD commentary, describes as demonstrating “the sentimentality of television tabloid.” When one of Gale’s American crew members, David (Evan Handler), complains that the episode “raped and pillaged” a previous episode, Gale shoots back, “Repetition works, David. Okay? Do you think that those nit-wits out there in zombieland remember anything? It’s junk food for the brains. It’s, you know, filler. Fodder. Whatever. Just build to the interview.”
Gale does not realize his mistake until the second half of Natural Born Killers, when he finally gets a rare opportunity to meet Mickey and Mallory Knox themselves after they are caught by the law and sent to prison. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) is doing time in the deepest, darkest region of the prison and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) is being salivated over in another region by officers of the law. Mickey has agreed to do an interview with Gale on Super Bowl Sunday. The interview (which Stone modeled after Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Charles Manson) goes pretty smoothly until Mickey debunks the artificiality of Gale’s scare tactics: “You’ll never understand, Wayne. You and me? We’re not even the same species. I used to be you, then I evolved. From where you’re standing, you a man. 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?’”
So even though Natural Born Killers is not specifically an attack on the selling and glorifying of mass murderers by Hollywood filmmakers, as Tarantino’s screenplay was (to some extent—though not entirely), this does not mean Stone ignores the “sale and glorification” debate entirely. Still, Emerson expresses annoyance at Stone for ignoring Hollywood movies that allegedly commit such a fallacy, particularly because Stone cut out a movie-within-a-movie excerpt in Tarantino’s original screenplay, entitled "Thrill Killers", that gave weight to that argument. Emerson writes:
Tarantino's script was done like a documentary, and featured a hilarious excerpt from a Hollywood exploitation movie about Mickey and Mallory called Thrill Killers. As you can see from reading this excerpt, there's nothing in Stone's movie that makes fun of the media's perceptions of Mickey and Mallory (or of Mickey and Mallory themselves) as much as this movie parody. Why did Stone cut it out? Probably three reasons: 1) he's notorious for having no sense of humor; 2) it has a satirical point of view that the rest of Stone's film lacks; 3) the movie Stone actually made is much closer to Thrill Killers than it is to Tarantino's send-up.
Emerson makes a valid point when he accuses Stone of making a movie that’s actually a lot like the “Thrill Killers” excerpt from Tarantino’s screenplay. Indeed, Natural Born Killers, much like “Thrill Killers”, puts a lot of emphasis on the love that binds Mickey and Mallory together; the director in Tarantino’s “Thrill Killers” excerpt describes the tale of Mickey and Mallory as “an operatic love story,” which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a filmmaker like Stone might say.
But here’s my question: why is it such a problem if Stone did, indeed, make a movie closer to “Thrill Killers”? Wouldn't that make the movie a more empathetic study in the lives of these two people? You have to remember that Natural Born Killers was released at a time when the American public, aside from being obsessed with mass murderers, was also obsessed with thinking up grotesque ways to punish them. Our justice system back then was founded on a “three strikes, you’re out” rule. Stone was worried about this, and longed for the public to do a little more in the way of empathizing with the situations and backgrounds of these mass murderers, horrific as their crimes may have been. In the age of the Willie Horton political ads, I’d say this was pretty ballsy on his part.
“None of us,” Stone explained in a Charlie Rose interview, “should feel ourselves superior to another person for having committed a crime, because in us is the ability to commit that same crime. We are united, we’re linked… we must have the humility to understand our brother and sister. In the murderer goes I. The little black kid that kills somebody in the park tomorrow, and—you know—kills a nice, respectable person? You hate that kid, right? I mean, you wanna kill him for what he did. You want to throw him away in jail… but, you know, he has a reason, and you gotta go back through his life, and his pain, and his suffering. And you begin to understand.”
Perhaps because Natural Born Killers provides a more intimate window into Mickey and Mallory’s lives than the harshest of satire would permit, Emerson charges that Stone’s own filmmaking approach is indistinguishable to that of Wayne Gale:
Stone is very big on how "the artist" just can’t help but "reflect society." He contends that to say that NBK is part of the problem it half-heartedly pretends to criticize is like trying to "kill the messenger." But how, exactly, does Stone's "message" significantly different from Hard Copy's or Wayne Gayle's? Stone doesn't, or can't, say. In claiming that NBK is but a mirror, simply reflecting the violence in the media and society at large, Stone is virtually admitting that his movie has no point of view that would give satirical context to the violence it portrays. I'd argue that the artist's mission is not just to reflect, but to imagine, transform, interpret, comment.
And then Stone says: "Natural Born Killers comes from a very emotional moment in time, those two years that I really felt disgusted. Everything was coming up. I just felt sick, disillusioned – and I just expressed myself the way a kid would by just throwing paint on a canvas. And I just let it go, I didn’t censor myself at all." Somehow, throwing paint on a canvas (or blood on a screen) like a kid and then labeling it "satire" is equated with not censoring oneself. You know, I'll bet Wayne Gayle (or, for that matter, John Wayne Gacy) could say the exact same thing about reporting for tabloid TV or serial killing. Gosh, they were just expressing their disgust with society and not censoring themselves.
Again, I have to disagree with Emerson here. In my view, Stone, as a filmmaker, differs from Wayne Gale in that he believes violence can be eliminated by not exposing potential mass murderers to the greediness of mass media. A figure like Wayne Gale would say that mass media can be a deterrent to crime because a show like American Maniacs alerts at-home viewers to the actions of nearby criminals. Stone, however, believes that the environments of most mass murderers are actually shaped by mass media (demonstrated, for example, in the film’s notorious “I Love Mallory” sequence), and that the only way to escape such artificial hostility is to escape the system and disappear in a media-free underground. As Patti Smith sings in the film’s opening credits: “Outside of society—that’s where I wanna be! Outside of society—they’re waiting for me!”
Furthermore, it is untrue to claim that Stone is merely “reflecting” media violence. Stone is also interpreting it; specifically, he interprets media violence as an insult to the audience’s intelligence (“Repetition works, David!”). And where Emerson takes issue with Stone’s “uncensored paint on a canvas” quote, dismissing it as the confession of a sloppy artist with nothing to say, I see nothing wrong with it; Luis Bunuel, after all, specialized in “uncensored paint on a canvas” long before Stone, and in several instances (Un Chien Andalou, Simon of the Desert, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie) the results worked beautifully. Stone is more or less following his lead.
Stone is also interpreting misogyny in the media, which he first exposes in the “I Love Mallory” sequence when Mallory imagines being fondled by her father (Rodney Dangerfield) while a laugh track howls at her abuse, ignorant to what is really going on. Ironically, Quentin Tarantino revealed in an interview with Opie and Anthony that this sequence drove him out of the theater and provoked him to demand that Stone cut his screenwriting credit out of the film (although Tarantino says that he and Stone are on good terms now, and admits that the one thing he likes about the scene is its interesting interpretation of what Rodney Dangerfield might have been like in real life). Why Tarantino disliked the scene, I am not sure, but to me, it is an important scene because it establishes Mallory’s violent home life, which includes being derided by her father as a “stupid bitch”; thus, she is reasonably upset when Mickey calls her this later on in the film. Misogyny in the media is further emphasized when a psychologist (Steven Wright—who worked with Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs) informs Wayne Gale he is unmoved by Mallory’s death threats against him, because “I never really believe what women say to me.”
But herein lies a possible problem: by focusing more on the villainy of the mass media than on the villainy of mass murderers, is Stone not committing some type of moral fallacy? Emerson writes:
In the end, the only idea in the movie is Stone's assertion that tabloid TV reporters are a lower form of humanity than mass killers. That may be a provocative (if morally questionable) position to take, but it's just thrown out there; the movie doesn't even try to back it up.
Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude that the film portrays the mass media as “a lower form of humanity” than mass killers. I just think that Stone wants to take a more unusual approach by showing us more of the media’s villainy. After all, we walk into the movie knowing, from the opening scene in the diner, that Mickey and Mallory are evil people. It is a given. But in the 1990’s, it was not a given to charge the mass media with some of the blame as well.
Along with the media, Stone also goes after right-wing law enforcement. This is represented by Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), who, like Mickey and Mallory, was bred by violence; as an 8-year old, he witnessed his mother’s chest exploding on the day Charles Whitman fired shots from the University of Texas Tower. Because Scagnetti wants nothing to do with Wayne Gale, you would think he’s anti-media, but no: he’s written books about his ruthless crime-fighting exploits. Like Wayne Gale, he sells fear to the public, as does McCluskey (Tommy Lee Jones), the prison warden who believes that the best way to run a prison is to strike fear into inmates by twisting their noses with pliers. Neither Scagnetti nor McCluskey ever once consider that their ruthless crime-fighting tactics will come back to haunt them; this explains clips in the film’s end credits featuring the recently-departed Rodney King, a distant echo of a real-life incident tainted by brutal law enforcement and its consequences.
Stone scores another point against the media when he argues that it’s hypocritical to criticize figures like Mickey and Mallory when we all have a Mickey and Mallory hidden deep within the recesses of our souls, a universal theme that is emphasized at a moment (very late in the film) when Wayne Gale suddenly finds himself fighting alongside Mickey and Mallory in the wake of an escalating prison riot. The riot has made Gale feel pure and alive for the very first time in his life; anyone who’s ever at least played a game of paintball can certainly attest to what he’s feeling. It’s not until this point in the film when Natural Born Killers truly begins to qualify as satire, and, as fellow blogger Jake Cole writes, “Gale is so consumed in his own hype that he, too, begins to gun down prison guards in a frenzy. As TV destroys itself in rapid montage, Mickey and Mallory emerge the evolved ‘natural born killers,’ the idols of a world that has finally come to celebrate its evil side.”
But does the movie itself celebrate this kind of evil? Emerson argues:
This movie does exactly the same thing it pretends to be criticizing -- and gets off on it. Stone wants to have it both ways -- to condemn violence and its exploitation, and to acknowledge that it's fun to groove on that violence after all. In 1969, Stanley Kubrick tried to show the same sort of thing in A Clockwork Orange… But Kubrick's film, whatever its other faults, captured that ambivalence and communicated it to the audience; it got you to feel sorry for a pathetic monster but never urged you to applaud his cruelty.
True, AClockwork Orange didn’t urge us to applaud Alex’s cruelty. I don’t believe Natural Born Killers urges us to applaud Mickey and Mallory’s cruelty, either; in retrospect, both films can be accused of practically the same offenses. Both Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers begin with their heroes launching into a series of brutal acts, show us how they’re punished by establishments, and then proceed to reveal the flaws in those establishments before ending with the heroes essentially beating the system. The Ludovico Treatment is conquered in Clockwork Orange, and the mass media is pumped full of lead in Natural Born Killers. Alex is a rapist and murderer, and in the end he’s rewarded with his Beethoven music. Mickey and Mallory are mass murderers, and in the end they escape underground and get away with it. We come away from both films convinced that these are, yes, monstrous people, but then again so are the systems controlling them. Kubrick and Stone each get to make their case to explain why.
For me, the strongest section in Emerson’s critical piece on Natural Born Killers is his analysis of Stone’s own interviews explaining the film’s intentions, and it is here that one does have to admit some of Stone’s statements appear to contradict each other:
Oliver Stone may be the first, true "spin director" – a filmmaker who continually uses the media to manipulate impressions and put spin on his movies. Stone undoubtedly feels this is necessary because his movies themselves are so muddled and confused. As I've noted many times before, Stone talks a much better movie than he actually makes. Here are some examples of Stone talking out of both sides of his mouth, from the NBK video documentary:
"The irony is that, in cutting these three minutes, I think that much of the black humor in the film was lost. A shot of a knife going through a window, a bullet going through a hand and creating a hole in it, take the edge off and make the film, in a way, more comfortable and easier to watch, because you realize it’s ridiculous. And I think that by cutting some of that stuff it makes it grimmer and allows certain people to not completely grasp the attitude of the movie." -- Oliver Stone; intro to NBK
And then: "A lot of the, you know, younger filmmakers – I’m surprised that they think violence is cool and hip. And they play it that way – which is fine, you can make a couple of films like that, but I can’t see making a career out of it. Morally, it’s a repugnant point of view to me, because I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve seen the effects of guns, and it’s pretty terrifying....
"There’s no question that movies, by the standard of real violence, are a pale approximation, almost a joke. So I think a lot of the younger filmmakers, because they can’t get the realism, just go the other way, and they dismiss the consequences of violence. You kill someone and it’s fun, it’s hip, it’s cool. I could never take part in that, personally, because of my own experience in life." -- Oliver Stone, in the interviews accompanying the director’s cut of NBK.
OK, my head is spinning (though not as fast as Ollie’s, apparently). Let’s see: The original version of NBK lacked some of the black humor – like the bloody see-through gunshot wound in the hand – that should make the film less grim and easier to watch. Those kinds of things allow you to better grasp the movie’s attitude because they are supposed to be funny and ridiculous, although Stone himself (the director and co-author of the screenplay) finds that attitude morally repugnant because he’s seen the real effects of violence in Vietnam and violence should not be portayed as fun and cool and hip, the way those younger filmmakers do. Right. But, uh, how again does the "black humor" and making the violence fun/funny different from what Stone is accusing those younger ‘90s filmmakers (a direct slap at Quentin Tarantino, who hated what Stone did to his script?) of doing? And how does this "black humor" clarify the film’s "attitude"? Who does the film encouraged to laugh at, the killers or the victims of their violence? Whose side is the film really on? What consequences do Mickey and Mallory -- embodiments of Violence in Society -- face because of their violence? Why are the killings presented from the killers’ point of view, and the victims always made comically loathsome and somehow "deserving" of their deaths -- oh, except for the racist stereotype of The Indian, that is. It's "bad bad bad" to kill those noble Native Americans, isn't it? (See Mississippi Burning for more examples of this kind of extra-perverted racism.)
Emerson is correct that Stone’s comments about “black humor” are odd. The scene Stone refers to—in which Mallory takes Wayne Gale hostage and then shoots a hole into his hand—is not a scene that I find particularly funny. To the contrary, I think this scene works for the exact reason that Stone tries to argue against: it’s supposed to be grim, horrific, and uncomfortable to watch. When Mallory shoots Gale in the hand, he lets out a painful, bloodcurdling scream that puts an end to his brief fantasy as a killer; it’s a jolt to the audience as well, because it reminds us—just as it no doubt reminds Gale—that violence is not all fun and games. It HURTS. Oddly enough, Stone even confirms the raw power of this scene on the DVD commentary (“It’s real, in its weird kind of way. It kind of centers you… and that became one of the symbols of the film”), so perhaps even Stone has come around to realizing the ridiculousness of his previous claim that the scene is meant to be funny. I do, however, think that Downey’s performance as Gale provides the basis for many funny lines of dialogue in the film (“Ming is not a fucking restaurant!”), so I disagree with Emerson’s separate point in Part III of his piece that the film has “no humor”.
I understand where Stone is coming from when he expresses uneasiness about the younger filmmakers in the 90’s who made careers out of “cool and hip” violence. It’s a redundant trend in moviemaking that continues to this day. There’s no denying that his comments are partially a slap at Tarantino, and I would deem them a little unfair; to be sure, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds all make occasional attempts to cut through the ugliness of violence. Still, there’s no denying that Tarantino, as a filmmaker, is way more interested in making violence exhilarating in his movies (see Kill Bill Vol. 1) than Stone, who is generally more interested in making violence disturbing in his movies, being a Vietnam veteran who’s witnessed human atrocities first-hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean Stone is clean in this regard; at one point in Natural Born Killers, Mickey is griping about violence in Hollywood (“I been thinking about why they making all these stupid fucking movies. Anyone out there in Hollywood believe in kissing anymore?”) while the chainsaw clip from the Stone-scripted Scarface is played in the background through rear projection—Stone’s clever way of acknowledging his own hypocrisies.
As for the Navajo Indian (Russell Means from The Last of the Mohicans) who takes Mickey and Mallory into his home, I am confused by Emerson’s assertion that the character is “a racist stereotype.” Stone presents him as a man whose family has endured the pain of violence (it is implied that his son died in Vietnam), and who determines instantly that Mickey and Mallory have been bred from violence as well, although theirs is dictated by media instead of government; from the Navajo’s point of view, the words “too much T.V.” are projected on Mickey and Mallory’s clothes. The Navajo is not necessarily “noble,” either, which he reveals when he tells his grandson a story about a woman who died from the bite of a snake that enjoyed her hospitality (“Look, bitch: you knew I was a snake”). The Navajo laughs at this story, even when he knows he is violating its principal moral. Mickey and Mallory are, in a sense, snakes, yet he is willing to offer them his hospitality anyway. When Mickey accidentally shoots the Navajo dead and is reprimanded for it by Mallory, we are happy to see them coming to their senses for once, even while we sense the irony that they still haven’t realized their mistake in murdering scores of other innocent people.
I question Emerson’s claim that the movie’s victims are made out to “deserve” their deaths. In Part III of his piece, Emerson elaborates on this a bit further, describing the murder of Mallory’s mother (Edie McClurg) and father:
Mickey and Mallory kill Mallory's parents, stuffing dad's head into the fish tank and setting mom on fire in her bed. The movie's visceral message is: These people deserve to die -- dad because of what he did and mom because she didn't try to stop him. But is anything else going on here? Is the film pulling the old "blame-the-parents-for-the-sins-of-the-children" routine and saying this is the reason Mickey and Mallory turned out to be indiscriminate murderers? Does this excuse their behavior in any way?
Well, while it is certainly true that Mickey and Mallory believe Mallory’s parents deserve their deaths, (Mickey says in his interview with Gale, “I know a lot of people who, uh… deserve to die”), I am not so sure the movie agrees with them. Stone has indicated that Natural Born Killers is partially a study in the reasons why mass murders happen; I don’t think this is the same thing as excusing the murders just because of the reasons why they occurred. As Stone himself put it in his interview with Charlie Rose, “Everybody’s out there, you know, ripping, shredding. And I’m not for it! It is a Darwinian world, but it’s also a world capable of love. And this is the big conflict in our lives. Love and aggression.”
So, then, one might ask: Why doesn’t Stone judge Mickey and Mallory too harshly for their definition of “deserved deaths”? If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say it’s because the point of this film is to attack the media’s perception of deserved punishment, not the concept of deserved punishment itself. At one point, the film even briefly addresses the thorny issue of capital punishment when Scagnetti tells McCluskey, “Fry the pricks!” He views the death penalty as a convenient way to deal with killers, and God knows this was a persistent view held by many law officials in the 90’s (Timothy McVeigh’s execution comes to mind). Aside from Mallory’s parents, practically all of Mickey and Mallory’s victims are very obviously undeserving of their deaths, including: a rape victim (Corinna Laszlo), a waitress (O-Lan Jones), a druggist (Glen Chin), a gas station attendant (Balthazar Getty), and a hostage cop named Duncan (Joe Grifasi) who is a family man and pleads for his life, but is shot anyway (reminding us of the hostage cop in Reservoir Dogs, another Tarantino script).
The killings in the film are not always seen from Mickey and Mallory’s’ point of view. When a girl, taken hostage, is raped by Mickey in a motel room, we experience it from her POV; there is a terrifying moment when Mickey sneers sinisterly into the camera. When Scagnetti is dying on the floor of a prison cell, gurgling blood while a fork is stuck in his throat, we see everybody else in the cell from his POV, and the scene is made all the more repulsive by Wayne Gale’s roar for Scagnetti to shut up (because his gurgling is ruining a romantic moment) and by Mickey pointing a shotgun barrel at him (i.e. us, the audience) as if to fire. Eventually, it is Mallory who shoots him dead, and again, we experience the death from Scagnetti’s POV; Mallory is pointing the gun at us, and Scagnetti’s final scream of terror is like “the throwing up of a life badly lived, a life of insanity and madness” (as described by Stone on the commentary). We even feel scared for McCluskey when he dies at the end of the film, when we are locked in the prison along with him as an unimaginably large mob of prisoners bears down on him and a handful of innocent prison guards—whom we feel even more sorry for.
In fact, for me, one of the most harrowing murders in the entire film is the murder of Wayne Gale—in some way's, the film’s nastiest villain, but nevertheless one whom we hate to see go. Tarantino’s original screenplay had ended with Gale screaming in terror while Mickey and Mallory proudly pumped him full of lead. It is safe to assume that Stone found this ending to be too cruel, and that some of the poison needed to be taken out of it in order for audiences to accept such a grisly finale. He and co-writers David Veloz and Richard Rutowski rewrote it significantly, and the end result is my single favorite exchange of dialogue in the film, in which Gale begs for his life, and Mickey decides to do the decent thing and explain why he and Mallory feel the need to kill him:
Mickey: “You’re scum, Wayne. You did it for the ratings. You don’t give a shit about us or anybody except yourself.”
Gale: “Wait a minute, you fucking hypocrite. What about the Indian? You said you were done with killing—you said love beats the demon! YOU SAID THAT LOVE BEATS THE DEMON!”
Mickey (putting down gun, walking over): “I am, and it will. It’s just that you’re the last one, Wayne...”
Gale (crying): “No, man. Don’t fucking kill me.”
Mickey (consoling him): “This is not about you, you egomaniac. I kind of like you. But if we let you go, we’d be just like everybody else. Killing you—and what you represent—is… a statement. I’m not so sure exactly what it’s saying, but… you know. Frankenstein killed Dr. Frankenstein.”
I love this exchange for a number of reasons.
First of all, whenever I watch this scene, I always find myself agreeing with both Mickey and Gale. Mickey has a point that Gale is a ratings whore, and that if he is released he’ll probably return to his life of covering Mickey and Mallory’s exploits. He’s the one thing that’s still standing between them and a media-free underground.
On the other hand, Gale has a point, too: Mickey is a hypocrite, despite his firm belief that love beats the demon, which he himself outright confesses (“I am, and it will”). Even when Gale tries to make a run for it, Mickey doesn’t shoot him at that point; he and Mallory cock their shotguns instead, as a warning to convince him to stay put. They intend to kill him, yes. But they want him to “have some dignity” upon death, too; hence, their allowance for him to take a deep breath, spread his arms and let out an Eastern chant before getting shot dead. “I’m gonna miss him,” Mickey confesses. And, damn it all, so will we.
If there’s one major thing I differ with Stone on, it’s the way I respond to the movie’s ending. In a new documentary on the film’s 15th Anniversary DVD, Stone is optimistic that it’s possible for mass murderers to escape into a media-free underground: “I believe there is an underground that doesn’t watch necessarily Internet, or has a different approach to life, and I think there’s a lot of people out there who don’t go along with the system as it is, you know? But I would love them to get away with it—and I think they could.”
Stone would see such a thing as a cause for relief. I don't think it's a cause for relief at all. Stone, apparently, is happy that Mickey and Mallory succeed in getting away with their crimes, perhaps because he’s confident that a life free of a bloodthirsty media and devoted more to love and family (they’re shown raising children in the end credits) would effectively end Mickey and Mallory’s chain of violence. Well, it’s nice to think so, but I’m not so sure I’d be as happy about such an occurrence as Stone. After all, O.J. Simpson is among those featured in the film’s end-credit clips; what would Stone think if he, too, had escaped into the underground? If Simpson had somehow taken up a life of love and family after being acquitted in his trial, would it make people any less angry about the murders he seems very likely to have committed? I doubt it.
The film’s DVD includes an alternate ending, in which the “guardian angel” character of Otis (Arliss Howard from Full Metal Jacket) escapes prison along with Mickey and Mallory, and then murders them from the backseat of their car. Would this scene have worked better than the present ending? Or would it have detracted from Stone’s reminder that he wants the movie to be about an escape from crass yellow journalism? I, personally, think that the alternate ending is interesting on its own terms, but then again, it probably wouldn’t have suited Stone’s interests because it’d have been a more conventional ending. It reeks of the influence of Bonnie and Clyde. And it does detract from Stone’s message that love beats the demon, even if I’m not so sure I agree entirely with such a message. But, as with JFK, this is not necessarily a film where you need to agree with Stone’s personal beliefs in order to sense the brilliance of what he is achieving. He’s laying out all the options for you, and then leaving you to make up your own mind.
The final shot of Natural Born Killers, set to the tune of Leonard Cohen singing, “I’ve seen the Future, brother: it is Murder,” is something unexpected: a close-up of a rabbit. We recall, in his interview with Wayne Gale, that Mickey had mentioned he used to have nightmares about a creature named “Mr. Rabbit,” and that those nightmares led to his accidental killing of the Navajo Indian. This is one instance in the film when Mickey is in no position to blame his acts of violence on the influence of the mass media. No—this time, something of purity did it. A rabbit. A creature of love and aggression.