Comes Naturally #26 (October 14, 1994):
Thinking about Natural Born Killers [or: We Have Seen the Enemy and S/He Is Us]

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Spectator Magazine - October 14, 1994
(c) David Steinberg

Thinking about Natural Born Killers (or: We Have Seen the Enemy and S/He Is Us)

"The more you eat your shadow, the more energy you receive." -- Robert Bly

Singing the Mickey and Mallory Blues

I went to see Natural Born Killers two days after it came out. I went to see it because Jesse, who is 14 and adolescently fascinated with all explorations dark and proud was aching to see it and couldn't get into the theatre without an adult companion. I went to see it because I had a feeling, despite the pre-release publicity, that there was more to this film than a gratuitous smearing around of blood and guts.

I came out dazed, overwhelmed, and with the warm inner smile that comes from knowing that something has gotten said that's important and that never gets talked about. (The last time I had that feeling from a film was when I saw Fearless.)

Also, I felt a little uneasy in my warm good feeling. First of all, it's disconcerting to emerge from a film full of such overwhelming violence -- so much violence that half the people I know swear that they will never go to see this film, not on your life! -- feeling good.

Secondly, I'm not really an Oliver Stone fan. Seems to me that he tends to be rather simplemindedly moralistic, dividing things between the obvious good guys and the bad guys of this world. While I generally agree with his political points of view (and I was deeply moved by Platoon), I don't have much respect for black-and-white, we-they politics any more.

So I was perplexed: How could a self-righteous moralist like Stone create a complex, truly Sadeian, exploration of good and evil?

I went to see it again, and a third time. No doubt about it: This is a rich and complex film. My only remaining question is whether Stone made such a darkly intelligent film intentionally, or whether it just came out that way despite himself.

A Brief Sadeian Manifesto

As may be implicitly clear from some of my columns -- and as I stated explicitly once quite some time ago -- I am (beneath this calm exterior) a devoted, dyed-in-the-wool, card carrying member of the Sadeian persuasion. That means I believe there is a darkness in the human psyche that needs not only to be acknowledged but also to be truly celebrated. It means that I believe the moralists -- those who would divide the world into good and evil and preach endlessly about affirming guess which side and suppressing guess which other -- are the real troublemakers, the real perverted souls, the people who truly spread pain and misery wherever their twisted thinking takes root. It means that of all the things that piss me off, hypocrisy and moral arrogance are probably at the top of the list. It means that making nice when you don't feel nice makes me want to scream. It means that a sense of honest reality is more fundamental to my sanity and to my feeling safe in the world than being able to maintain superficial comfort and calm.

It does not mean that I am a nihilist, a nasty son of a bitch, or even the kind of negative person who can't enjoy the beauty of a day's common events. It does not mean that I like to make babies cry or steal purses from defenseless old ladies on the street. It doesn't mean I believe that anything goes as long as you can get away with it. I wear my personal and social ethics as proudly as any Reaganite wears his pious "Just Say No to Anything That's Unpleasant to Think About."

But, as I see it, there is deep darkness in the human soul whether we like it or not, and this darkness is a source of power and life that needs to be welcomed and put to good use rather than being steadfastly denied and suppressed until it emerges in twisted and dangerous mutations of its original self. Anger, violence, hatred, the urge to kill -- these are emotional dynamics that reside within each and every one of us, not just within the Charlie Mansons and Richard Dahmers and Lorena Bobbitts of this world. It is precisely because we all have this within us, and because we so desperately try to deny that this is true, that we find ourselves simultaneously fascinated and revolted by those who act out the urges the rest of us pretend not to have.

Only Love Can Kill the Demon

This -- bless his pointed little head -- is precisely what Oliver Stone explores in Natural Born Killers, and he does it with such an unrelenting and (dare I say) subtle sense of paradox and irony that he seems to have driven all but the most devotedly committed antimoralists quite thoroughly out of their skulls.

Don't believe what you've been told about this film, dear readers. The blood and violence are not gratuitous, nor are they the point of the film. They are just the backdrop against which the more complex dynamics of the film take place, just as in real life. This film is neither a spoof nor an example of Hollywood's morbid fascination with blood and violence. It often takes the form of a spoof as a commentary on how we seem to be able to turn anything horrible into fodder for our amusement and entertainment these days. But the film is deadly serious whether it is spoofing or not. Laughing just to keep from crying, you might say. Satire in the best tradition of the form.

NBK is definitely "over the top" (as so many reviewers have pointed out), definitely beyond the boundaries of so-called normal reality. Critics seem to feel that Stone is being unintentionally or manipulatively excessive. But the excess, the going beyond, is clearly intentional, and quite appropriate to a film that is addressing emotional dynamics that are themselves beyond the rationalized "normal reality" that the self-declared Good People of the world keep trying to affirm. (On set, apparently, Stone blared thunderous music and had the stage crew fire shotguns in the air until everyone had been transported beyond the confines of normal existence. Only then would film shooting begin.) This is a film that operates according to the reality of the psyche, which is very different from the reality of the logical, rational forebrain.

As you must surely know by now (otherwise see the film before reading too far), Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are the main characters of this film, two (you might say) deranged mass murders who coldly and hotly kill 52 people in rather short order. Now I have to confess to a certain lack of objectivity. I'm always on the lookout for deranged fictional characters who are also brilliantly wise in their own way. I suppose this is just my longing for artistic confirmation of my Sadeian worldview. Hannibal Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs warmed the cockles of my topsy-turvy heart. And I was deeply disappointed when Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear and Madonna in Body of Evidence, two characters who had marvelous potential as Sadeian shamans, were created instead as mere wicked perverts, confirming the familiar good-evil dualistic paradigm. It's also true that I am irrationally intrigued with Juliette Lewis, who has her role of roles in this film. (For one thing, she gets to have her own, sexy, otherly version of intelligence for a change.)

Having said that, I have to say also that I do read Mickey and Mallory as twisted Sadeian truthspeakers, whether Stone intends them such high purpose or not. One of the main points of the film -- the path it offers out of the craven, soul-forgotten muck we all find ourselves depressingly immersed in -- is the mantra that Mickey intones during one of his philosophical monologues: love kills the demon.

"Everybody's got the demon in here," Mickey insists, pointing to his chest. "It feeds on your hate. The only thing that kills the demon is love." In other words, we all have demonic feelings, and the hype and greed and viciousness all around us feed these demons in ways that can truly be destructive and dangerous to ourselves and to others. But through it all, there is the opposing power of love, a love that can (and must) be as passionate, fiery, hot and insane as the demons themselves.

Only love this powerful and intense is strong enough to do battle with the anger and the urge to revenge that is born of abuse and injustice of the most viciously inhuman and life-killing varieties. No romance of the hearts and flowers variety is going to appeal to the Mickeys and Mallorys of this world, or to the Mickeys and Mallorys within each of us.

When Mickey bludgeons Mallory's arrogant, malicious, self-absorbed, incesting father -- when Mallory sets fire to her mother for standing back and doing nothing while her father abused her, when she drowns her father almost accidentally in the fish tank, then jumps up and down in giddy glee when she realizes that she has risen up and overthrown him -- their acts have the purity of psychic justice. "I am a new woman now!" Mallory exclaims afterwards. To her wide-eyed little brother she exults, "You're free, Kevin." (He responds with a wide, boyish grin.) When Mallory kicks the shit out of a leering, presumptuous, asinine cowboy who considers her fair game for lewd gestures and come-ons because she is dancing sexily to music on the jukebox, we are offered this same kind of primal vigilante satisfaction (not unlike the scene in which the would-be rapist is murdered in Thelma and Louise).

This is the intensity of vengeance born of being profoundly used and abused. It is a kind of primal anger we all carry, whether or not we were as severely abused as Mickey and Mallory. Wayne Gale, the film's cynical, selfish, sensationalizing media vulture, calls it "vengeance right out of the Bible" -- as all-Judeo-Christian as Calvary pie. This is the spirit in which Mickey and Mallory's love for each other is born -- the righteous release of that which makes ultimate psychic sense but is forever suppressed and denied. It is the connection between two people who swear giddy allegiance to psychic truth, no matter what the social consequences. (Listen up, all ye perverts....)

The Wedding Within the War

There are two main tensions in this film. The first is the Sadeian dichotomy between the inhuman, soulless insanity of the keepers of world order (psychotic cops, sadistic prison wardens, narcissistic media vultures) and the bizarre purity of Mickey and Mallory's passionate love for each other. The second is the disturbing tension within Mickey and Mallory themselves.

On the one hand, Mickey and Mallory are embodiments of unrestrained violent reaction of the most infantile and dangerous kind; on the other hand, they are the keepers of an undeniable wisdom and perspective. We cannot wholeheartedly embrace Mickey and Mallory. (Those who do in the film are ridiculed by Stone.) These are not outlaw heroes of the Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid variety. But we cannot dismiss them either. What we are asked to acknowledge is the integrity and insight that comes from entering the American heart of darkness so honestly and completely.

In an exquisitely beautiful ceremony by the side of the road, high above a scenic gorge, Mickey and Mallory exchange uncultured marriage vows as profound and poetic as any measured wedding recitation of Khalil Gibran. Mickey offers his marriage vow "before [God] and this river and this mountain and everything we don't know about." He pronounces the two of them husband and wife "by the power vested in me as god of my world." "For all eternity, until you and I die, and die, and die again," Mallory adds. It is the film's most lyric respite from its otherwise unrelenting manic chaos. The two crazed lovers slice open and press their gashed palms together in ultimate blood bonding that is at once grotesque and moving. They exchange snake wedding bands while Mallory's improvised long white veil falls dizzyingly into the abyss against a backdrop of uncontaminated natural beauty.

The thread of their Mickey and Mallory's love for each other runs throughout the film, a tender counterpoint to the violence and mayhem. Separated in prison, they dream of each other and write the tenderest of love letters. Their main goal in getting out of prison is to be reunited. In the end, they ride lovingly off into the sunset with their RV and their 2.5 children (Mallory is pregnant with the third), suffused with the glow of the American dream. Mickey and Mallory: the allAmerican couple. You've got to love these two, even as you see through them. And see through them, even as you love them. As the prison warden teases sleaze-cop Jack Scagnetti when he is about to finally meet (and try to kill) Mallory, the girl of his dreams, "You know her, you love her, you cannot fucking live without her."

Of Shadows, Fate, Innocence, and Dignity

As for the Sadeian tension between the moralizing do-gooders and the insightful demons, Stone gives the voice of self-righteous moral indignation to media slimeball Wayne Gale. Gale spars with Mickey during an in-prison interview -- the coup of Gale's twisted career, the ultimate culmination of television culture. Playing provocative talk show host, he excoriates Mickey for his heinous crimes. "What can you say to the relatives of the 52 people who are no longer on this earth thanks to you and Mallory?" he sputters in moral fury. Mass murderer Mickey takes on the voice of philosophical wisdom. "Are you innocent, Wayne?" he asks rhetorically. "I don't think I'm any crazier than you are." Raising his arms to cast a giant shadow from the TV lights, Mickey smiles knowingly. "That's your shadow on the wall, Wayne," he says quietly. "You can't get rid of your shadow, Wayne. No matter what you do, it's always there."

According to Mickey, the only difference between himself and Gale is that Mickey acknowledges his shadow self while Gale pretends to a virtue he doesn't really have. As a result, there is an integrity to Mickey and his murderousness that contrasts favorably with the hypocritical morality of the likes of Gale. Asked why he kills people, Mickey says simply that he is doing nothing more than acting out his destiny, his fate. A lion has to be a lion; a deer has to be a deer. "I guess you could say I'm just a natural born killer," Mickey muses.

Murder is everywhere, he explains. "All God's creatures do it. It's just that when we kill animals or the forests we call it industry instead of murder."

The contrast between Mickey's integrity and Gale's utter lack of soul is stretched still further when it comes time for Gale to get his due from Mickey and Mallory. By this time Gale has become a blind convert to the Mickey-Mallory life but, as they point out, he is not worthy of them. "You don't really care about anybody but yourself, Wayne. That's your problem," Mickey correctly observes. As Gale snivels and pleads for his life, Mickey regards him with utter contempt. "At least have a little dignity, Wayne," he exhorts disgustedly, completing the inversion of the Upstanding and the Pitiful.

Now Stone is certainly not saying that we should all become serial killers, or that murder and revenge are paths of wisdom and virtue. But he is pushing the irony that these truly dangerous and sociopathic characters have a kind of integrity and soul that most of the rest of us lack. Mickey and Mallory are not offered as role models, neither as killers nor as lovers. The whole Sadeian point is that there are no such things as untainted role models. That's why it becomes necessary to pay attention to the wisdom that comes from the bloody mouths and hands of the likes of Mickey and Mallory Knox.

As usual, Stone gives us his message without watering it down. He is not interested in the benign comfort of his viewers. Maybe he alienates 90% of his audience in the process, but he stays true to the unbearable intensity of undiluted psychic reality. When things get really nasty and ugly in this world, the Good People want to look the other way. They don't want their placid world upset, except maybe a little at a time for excitement. For years, no one could bear to look at the emotional realities of what it meant to be a soldier in Vietnam. Stone pushed through that resistance with Platoon, though not until ten years after the war had ended. Now, again, people don't want to look at the screaming intensity that underlies the violence we see all around us in our post-Vietnam reality. That intensity, and the need to recognize that the problem can't be cast off on some otherly Them, is what Stone is trying to force us to see with Natural Born Killers. Only this time the war is still going on.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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