The Unsubtle Social Satire of “Natural Born Killers”

natural born killers Woody Harrelson & Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers (Warner Bros.)

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)

Natural Born Killers might be the most “of the time” movie ever made. That time was 1994, when Generation X was supposed to be taking over the world, but found it a tough road to hoe, thanks to a struggling economy and Baby Boomers refusing to move aside. In a pattern that today is all too familiar, we were immediately dismissed by our elders as “whiny” and “entitled,” as reports were issued stating that we’d be the first generation less successful than our parents. Entertainment for twentysomethings gradually became cynical to the point of nihilistic, with reminders that while we were the most heavily marketed to generation, the goods we had been sold–work hard and all your dreams will come true–were bogus. Caring was a waste of time, because the world didn’t care about you, and all it deserved was a shrug and a weary “Whatever, dude.”

The most successful of what would be an odd spate of “sexy young people go on a crime spree” movies (along with Kalifornia, The Doom Generation, and the lesser known Love and a .45), Natural Born Killers was based on an early screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Unable to finance the film himself, Tarantino sold the script to Warner Bros., where ultimately it was changed so much by director Oliver Stone that, per WGA rules, Tarantino only received a “story by” credit. Originally conceived as a fairly standard “killers on the run” road movie, it was turned into an over the top satire about the media’s glorification of and complicity in crime.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis star as Mickey and Mallory Knox, white trash in love who go on the lam after murdering Mallory’s parents, weaving a path of death and destruction throughout the Southwest. Both demanding of attention and disdainful of the media that gives it to them, they become unlikely celebrities. Though Mickey and Mallory don’t seem to understand the concept of “laying low,” and they dress like they should be giving out complimentary bottles of Orbitz at Lollapalooza, it takes the police an implausibly long time to catch up with them. By the time they’re finally captured, the entire country is obsessed with them, divided evenly between the pro-M&M camp, who proclaims them to be “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson,” and the anti side, who demands nothing less than round the clock, detailed coverage of their punishment.

Chef’s kiss of a soundtrack aside, Natural Born Killers is not a great movie. It’s often not even a good movie. It’s extraordinarily pleased with itself, in the way that only an Oliver Stone movie can be (let alone one originally written by Quentin Tarantino), and looks like it was rewritten during a weekend-long coke binge while blasting Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine on constant loop. It’s the kind of movie that thinks it’s clever by making the characters who are allegedly on the right side of the law (like Tom Sizemore as the psychotic police detective on the case, and Tommy Lee Jones as a prison warden) grotesque monsters. It thinks it’s being profound by projecting the words TOO MUCH TV and DEMON onto Mickey and Mallory’s bodies, and by portraying a journalist as having devil horns and blood running down his face. 

The viewer is expected to fear, admire, pity, and even root for Mickey and Mallory, sometimes all at the same time, because they’re the products of a morally bankrupt society. We only have ourselves to blame, you see. It is, frankly, a little embarrassing to look back now and remember that I once regarded this movie with deep respect, because it was some heavy, real shit, man. It’s not. It’s deeply silly, loud, garish, and has all the subtlety of a sack of bricks. 

But it’s not entirely wrong either.

Twitter, your one stop shop for bad takes, conspiracy theories, shitposts, and psychotic fandoms, recently welcomed O.J. Simpson to its user base. Simpson announced his account with a video that ended with him saying “I’ve got a little getting even to do,” a statement that, at best, exhibits a breathtaking lack of self-awareness. With a depressing predictability, Simpson accumulated more than 800,000 followers within a week of joining. Some of his followers claimed they were hoping to see him incriminate himself, or even outright confess to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, evidently forgetting that because Simpson was already acquitted, he can’t be retried for them. Others, it can be assumed, genuinely believe that he’s out there still trying to find the real killers. The rest are treating it as a sideshow, as Simpson tries to regain some sort of cult celebrity status.

It’s merely by the fact that most mass murderers and serial killers are unattractive, lone wolf sad sacks that Natural Born Killers still remains a largely broad, clumsy satire.

In 2014, 30 year-old Jeremy Meeks was arrested as part of a gang sweep, and charged with various theft and weapons possession counts. Once Meeks’ mugshot leaked to social media, he became known as the “hot felon,” and was eventually offered a modeling contract while in prison. There was even a “collectible” action figure created of Meeks that came with a tiny machine gun, which you could own for the low, low price of $109. He remains a minor celebrity today, in which even his ex-wife throwing herself a divorce party made it into gossip columns. Similarly, an Instagram feed exists that’s devoted to the courtroom fashions of Anna Sorokin, a con artist who was recently convicted of grand larceny and theft of services. It currently has over 3,000 followers.

A whole separate article could be written (and has been) about the robust true crime fan base that exists online. Some rational minded individuals merely talk about murder cases that interest them. Others treat serial killers and mass murderers with a sort of ironic fascination, buying coffee cups with Jeffrey Dahmer’s face on them and stitching samplers of Edmund Kemper’s infamous quote about wondering what a woman’s head would look like on a stick. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the folks who have genuine crushes on people like Ted Bundy, or insist that school shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were just a couple of broken little boys who deserve sympathy and forgiveness.

I’m not saying that if an attractive young couple were to go on a murder spree fans would follow them around like the Grateful Dead on tour. I’m definitely saying that Mickey Knox’s faux-philosophical blathering (“Media’s like the weather, only it’s man-made weather. Murder? It’s pure.”) would find a lot of traction online. Mallory’s thrift store crop tops and bell bottoms would 100% be discussed as a “look.” It’s merely by the fact that most mass murderers and serial killers are unattractive, lone wolf sad sacks that Natural Born Killers still remains a largely broad, clumsy satire.

Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile also attempted to explore why people are fascinated by notorious criminals, with similar results. Both films are shallow in their approach, suggesting that, in Natural Born Killers’ case, it’s just because Mickey and Mallory are so cool, and Mickey’s juvenile Beat poetry (“At birth I was cast into a flaming pit of scum forgotten by God”) really says something about the world. They pull their punches at the last minute, unable to look deeper into what our fascination with murder says about us. The media is complicit in such things, true, but it also follows the rules of supply and demand: they wouldn’t be showing this stuff if we weren’t out here eating it up.

“Natural Born Killers” trailer:

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