Natural Born Killers, a psychedelic serial killer drama disowned by Quentin Tarantino

The trippy and hallucinatory visual style of Natural Born Killers is also truly inspired. The filmmakers have employed all types of visual styles, including 16 mm black-and-white, grainy, cinema verite and various bright colour palettes.

Natural Born Killers – the title sounds so Tarantino-esque, right? It is because the film was born from the maverick mind of Quentin Tarantino. Only the master disowned his creation after director Oliver Stone bought the rights to the script and changed the very soul of it. So much so, he attempted to get his name removed from the credits in the movie, and kept Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi from accepting roles in the film. Tarantino even discouraged his fans from watching the film. Then, despite strong opposition from the producers of the film, he published his original screenplay as a paperback.

Understandably, Tarantino was enraged as Oliver Stone messed with his vision of a psychotic couple who go on a cross country killing spree. Stone, along with his co-writers Richard Rutowski and David Veloz, simply doubled down on Tarantino’s vision and turned into a scathing indictment of American media’s obsession to turn serial killers into icons.

In Natural Born Killers, Stone has portrayed a lawless, violent and amoral society, where everything is turned into a spectacle for publicity and fame. Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are the byproducts of a culture that believes that all publicity is good publicity. In many ways, this film presaged a morally flexible, self-obsessed generation, armed with smartphones with high-resolution cameras and fast internet.

Tarantino’s original screenplay focuses on the phenomenal cultural impact of 24/7 channels and their fascination with true crimes and serial killers. His vision highlights the hypocrisy of the institutions, which disparages killers such as Mickey and Mallory, and at the same time, immortalize them through books, movies and blanket media coverage. These observations find a home in Stone’s film too. In addition to that, Stone’s film psychoanalyse increasingly complex and twisted society on a much deeper level.

In Tarantino’s screenplay, Mickey and Mallory are the only “menace to living creatures.” But, Stone’s film argues menace comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. Tarantino’s screenplay says many selfish people capitalize on the characters like Mickey and Mallory. Stone’s film adds that the psychotic couple is just the symptom of illness, not the disease itself. Throughout the film, we see equally evil characters, if not more so. A rapist father, a sociopathic cop who gets away with murders, and a bunch of other people who think they are better than Mickey and Mallory because they are on the other side of the bars. But, repeated glimpses of their honest mental images say otherwise.

And a celebrated television reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), condemns Mickey and Mallory in public but internally takes pleasure in their existence for the couple bring millions of eyeballs to his show. In a way, he roots for people like Mickey and Mallory, so that he could go on camera, take a moral high ground and disparage them.

Wayne Gale plays a major part in Tarantino’s screenplay. But, in the film, his character only comes into prominence towards the third act. While Tarantino designed Mickey and Mallory as remorseless creatures, Stone’s version takes a more compassionate look at the killers and suggest that a redemption may be waiting for the psychotic couple at the end of the tunnel.

The trippy and hallucinatory visual style of Natural Born Killers is also truly inspired. The filmmakers have employed all types of visual techniques, including black-and-white scenes, grainy images, cinema verite and various bright colour palettes. Every frame contributes to the nervous energy and neurotic tension of the narration. There is always something going on in the background. At times, you can’t make up your mind on where to focus. It hints at a highly distracted society, which has a lot to say but no time to think and feel. A generation that is spoiled for choice. And the use of sitcom-like blockings to narrate the horrors of a dysfunctional family is a stroke of genius. The score (by Trent Reznor) ranges from rock ‘n’ roll to Hindustani classical. This film is a riot of free will and imagination.

Not to mention violent characters turning into cartoon avatars, which seems like a comment on non-stop violence seeping into cartoon shows for kids. Just maybe, it even inspired animated sequences in Kamal Haasan’s Aalavandhan, which in turn inspired the manga scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Natural Born Killers is streaming on MUBI.

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