Natural Born Killers is a 1994 crime film satire directed by Oliver Stone about serial killers and their coverage by the media. It stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, and features appearances by Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Sizemore, and Tommy Lee Jones. It is based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino that was heavily revised by Stone with Dave Veloz and Richard Rutowski.
Next, a flashback sequence showing how the murderous pair met up: Mickey worked as a deliveryman, and once delivered some beef to the house where Mallory lived with her physically and sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield), her mother, and Kevin, her younger brother. The scene is portrayed as a sitcom with a canned laughter track, the "audience" laughing hardest when Mallory is subjected to lewd comments and attempted molestation by her repulsive father. When Mickey arrives, he falls in love with Mallory and whisks her away on a date, stealing her father's car in the process. Mickey is arrested and imprisoned for car theft, but escapes and returns to Mallory's house. The two kill her father by drowning him in the aquarium and burn her mother alive in her bed. They spare her ten-year-old brother. Mickey then takes Mallory away with him.
Back in the present, the pair continue their crime-spree (which bears several parallels to Bonnie and Clyde and the Starkweather-Fugate case), slaughtering their way across the southwestern United States and ultimately claiming fifty-two victims. Following them are two characters who see the murderers as a chance to acquire fame and glory for themselves, as well as furthering their own careers. The first is a policeman, Detective Jack Scagnetti (Sizemore), who seems particularly fascinated by Mallory. Scagnetti has a lifelong obsession with serial killers after seeing his mother shot and killed by Charles Whitman when he was five, and hopes to achieve hero status by capturing the pair. The second is journalist Wayne Gale (Downey), who hosts a show called American Maniacs, profiling serial killers in a blatantly sensationalist way. Various clips of his program on Mickey and Mallory are shown, with Gale acting outraged as he details the pair's crimes, although off-air he clearly regards their crimes as a fantastic way of boosting his show's ratings. It is Gale who is mostly responsible for elevating Mickey and Mallory into heroes, with his show featuring interviews with people around the world expressing their admiration for the mass killers as if they were film stars.
Mickey and Mallory become lost in the desert and are taken in by a Navajo man, known as "Old Indian" (Russell Means), and his grandson. After the duo fall asleep, the Old Indian begins chanting beside the fire, invoking nightmares in Mickey about his abusive parents. Mickey wakes up in a rage and shoots Old Indian before he realizes what he is doing. Mallory and Mickey are both traumatized, marking the first time the couple feel guilty for a murder. Mallory exclaims, "You killed life!", implying Old Indian was more worthy of living than their previous victims. While running from the scene through the desert, the two are bitten repeatedly by rattlesnakes.
They go to a drugstore to find snakebite antidote, but the police interfere and a gunfight ensues, ending when the police beat and kick Mickey relentlessly after he surrenders. Scagnetti, who was watching from the parking lot, takes the credit for capturing them. The film then jumps ahead one year. After a surreal trial, shown in clips from 'American Maniacs', the homicidal couple have been imprisoned, but are due to be shipped to a mental hospital after being declared insane.
Scagnetti arrives at the prison and meets up with Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) and the two devise a plan to get rid of Mickey and Mallory: McClusky will arrange for Scagnetti to be the driver for the Knoxes' transfer. Alone with the pair during transport, Scagnetti will shoot and kill them, then claim that they had been trying to escape. Gale, also at the prison, persuades Mickey to agree to a live interview to air immediately after the Super Bowl. At the time, Mallory is held in solitary confinement elsewhere in the prison, awaiting her transport to the mental hospital.
As planned, Mickey is interviewed by Gale. He gives a speech about how crime is a normal part of humanity, describes enlightenment through murder and declares himself a "natural born killer." His words inspire the other inmates (who are watching the interview on TV in the D Wing recreation room) and incite them to riot. During the riot, the inmates subdue, torture, and/or murder nearly all of the prison guards and inmate informants.
Warden McClusky orders the interview terminated over Gale's violent protests and heads to the control room, leaving Mickey alone with Gale, the film crew and several guards. Using a lengthy joke complete with hand gestures as a diversion, Mickey elbow-smashes a guard in the face and grabs his shotgun. Mickey kills most of the guards and takes the survivors and the film crew hostage. He leads them through the prison riot to find Mallory. Gale follows, giving a live television report as people are being beaten and slaughtered all around him.
Meanwhile, Mallory is being beaten in her cell by Scagnetti, having fought off his attempts at seduction and breaking his nose in the process (according to Stone's DVD commentary, Juliette Lewis actually broke Sizemore's nose in this scene. Sizemore refused treatment and continued the scene.). Still live on national television, Mickey engages in a short Mexican Standoff with Scagnetti, eventually feigning concession to lower Scagnetti's guard. Scagnetti is then stabbed in the throat with a shank by Mallory; Mickey reveals that he is out of bullets before Mallory picks up Scagnetti's loaded gun and shoots him twice in the head. They continue to escape through the riot-filled prison and Gale's TV crew are killed by corrupt prison guards. One of the two prison-guard hostages is shot and later bleeds to death.
After being rescued by a mysterious prisoner named Owen (Arliss Howard), Mickey and Mallory take cover in a blood-splattered shower room. By this time Gale has snapped and has shot a prison guard himself, finding the killing a thrill. Warden McClusky is outside the shower room with dozens of guards. Obsessed with killing Mickey and Mallory, McClusky threatens to storm the shower room, despite the protests of his guards who insist that there are more pressing problems, namely the hundreds of other rioting inmates heading their way.
Mickey and Mallory, together with Owen, eventually manage to escape by taking Gale and a guard hostage, Gale's camera still capturing everything. After Mickey and Mallory flee, McClusky and his guards are massacred by hordes of inmates who burst into the area, trapping McClusky and the guards against a locked gate. In the director's cut of the film, there is a shot of McClusky's head on a pike.
Owen is never seen or mentioned again after the escape. Mickey and Mallory steal a van and kill the guard, dumping his body out of the van while being chased by police officers. Escaping to a rural location, Mickey and Mallory give a final interview to Wayne Gale before—much to his surprise and horror—they execute him, capturing it on the camera (which, as they point out to Gale, is the one surviving witness).
The couple are then shown years after their escape in an RV together, with Mickey driving and Mallory (who is pregnant) watching their two children play.
The story of Frankenstein is mentioned twice: explaining why he's going to shoot Wayne Gale, Mickey says "Frankenstein had to kill Dr. Frankenstein", implying that his actions were created by the media, and when Warden McClusky is explaining to Jack Scagnetti that they plan to have Mickey and Mallory undergo electroshock therapy, footage of Frankenstein is shown.
Snakes reappear throughout the film. One of the first images in the film is of a rattlesnake. The couple later exchange wedding rings of intertwined snakes, and Mickey has a tattoo of two snakes forming a heart on his chest. There are recurring shots of a seven headed dragon, like the one depicted in the Book of Revelation. In the couple's car, there is a toy snake. Mickey and Mallory first meet a real snake at the Navajo's: a rattlesnake is coiled in the corner, a scene which Mickey recalls with fondness and admiration in his prison interview. The Navajo tells a story in his native Navajo about a woman who was shocked that the very snake she'd rescued had bitten her, to which the snake replies "Look bitch, you knew I was a snake." The pair are bitten by a seeming field of rattlesnakes, which leads them to the drug store (a neon sign of Caduceus of Mercury) where they are captured. Also when Mallory and Mickey cut themselves on the bridge to show their love to each other, their blood becomes animated and changes into a red and green snake, entwined and hissing at each other.
Mickey repeatedly uses nature and evolution to justify his killings, saying that "The wolf don't know why he's a wolf, the deer don't know why he's a deer. God just made 'em that way." He explains that he is the next step in evolution, and that he's a "natural born killer". Shots of nature open the film and occur throughout the film, set both on a television and in nature, with a violent or disturbing undertone. As Mickey and Mallory literally walk out of the media's frame at the end of the film, it suggests that only a teleological advanced being can transcend the created establishments that influence common Americans.
Yin and Yang, an ancient symbol of moral equivalence appear more than once. Mickey and Mallory have Yin and Yang tattoos on opposite arms. Mickey's tattoo is opposite and below another tattoo of the face of Christ. Mallory's tattoo is opposite and above a tattoo of a scorpion. Mickey's left earring is a Yin Yang. During Mickey's television interview he suggests that he and Mallory are "dark and light", compatible with one another they function as a single force intended to destroy the "demons" of mass media, corrupt law enforcement and the commonalty's obsession with violence.
A glowing lime green light is used throughout the film, symbolizing the sickness in Mickey's head. It first appears in the film's opening sequence, as lights in the diner jukebox. Green is also present in the key lime pie Mickey orders. It appears again predominantly when Mallory kills a gas station attendant, and absorbs almost the entire screen during the drug store sequence. Lime green lights later make a less pronounced appearance during the riot sequence.
The number 666 pops up in certain areas throughout the film - for example Route 666 and a brief glimpse of a newspaper a patron, who will later appear in the prison riot scene as Owen (Arliss Howard), is holding in the first scene.
The prison riot was filmed at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. In the first two of four weeks on location at the prison, the extras were actual inmates with rubber weapons. The other two weeks over 200 extras were needed to be brought in from 'the outside' because the Stateville inmates were on lockdown. The wedding scene was filmed on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge just west of Taos, New Mexico.
Natural Born Killers had a mixed critical response. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes records an average response of 48%, based on 27 reviews. However, Metacritic records a 74% positive response based on 20 reviews.
Roger Ebert, a film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the movie four stars out of four and wrote, "Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning.
However, other critics found the film unsuccessful in its aims. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post claimed that "Stone's sensibility is white-hot and personal. As much as he'd like us to believe that his camera is turned outward on the culture, it's vividly clear that he can't resist turning it inward on himself. This wouldn't be so troublesome if Stone didn't confuse the public and the private. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, "for all its surface passions, Natural Born Killers never digs deep enough to touch the madness of such events, or even to send them up in any surprising way. Mr. Stone's vision is impassioned, alarming, visually inventive, characteristically overpowering. But it's no match for the awful truth. James Berardinelli gave the film a negative review, but his dislike of the film was different than most unflattering reviews from other critics, who tended to focus on the film's decrying of violence and the media while sensationalizing both of those elements. Berardinelli said that the film "hit the bullseye" as a satire of America's lust for bloodshed, but repeated this argument so often and so loudly that it ruined the film.
The UK video release was also delayed due to a shooting at a school in Dunblane, Scotland. It was passed '18' uncut for video release on 26 February 1996. In 2002 the full 'Director's Cut' version of the film, restoring the 3 minutes of cuts required in the US in 1994, was submitted to the BBFC and classified '18' uncut.
Seventeen-year old Nathan K. Martinez shot and killed his stepmother and half-sister while they slept at their home in Bluffdale, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City in October, 1994. He was apprehended several days later while sleeping in a motel in O'Neill, Nebraska, following a nationwide manhunt. He was obsessed with the film and had seen it many times. He had shaved his head and wore the same style of round sunglasses that the "Mickey" character did in the film. His father and older brother had left early that morning for a hunting trip.
On January 3rd 1997, NY Firefighter James Halverson was running the local high school track when three teenagers shot and killed him. The teenagers were reportedly obsessed with the film and wanted to know "what it felt like to kill someone".
18-year-olds Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin Darras supposedly watched the film before carrying out a robbery in 1995 that resulted in murder. Relatives of one victim filed a lawsuit against Stone.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine High School Massacre were fans of the film. They used the initials of the movie's title, "NBK," as a code for their mission, writing "God I can't wait till they die. I can taste the blood now – NBK" and "the holy April morning of NBK". Also, in an undated journal entry, Klebold wrote about his options. "I'm stuck in humanity. Maybe going 'NBK' w. eric is the way to break free".
In 2004, Angus Wallen and Kara Winn, both 27, watched Natural Born Killers the night before murdering 22-year-old Brandon Murphy. They shot him, robbed him, and then set his body and apartment on fire in Jacksonville, Florida.
On April 23, 2006 Jeremy Allan Steinke, 23 years old, and his then 12-year-old girlfriend, murdered her parents, Marc and Debra Richardson, as well as her 8-year-old brother, Jacob in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Witnesses testified that Jeremy had watched Natural Born Killers several times previous to the murders. On July 9, 2007, Jasmine Richardson was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in the killings. On November 8, 2007, she was sentenced to the maximum allowable sentence of ten years, which is the maximum penalty for a person under 14 years of age. This will include four years in a psychiatric institution and four and a half years under conditional supervision in the community. She is currently the youngest person in Canadian history to be convicted of a multiple murder. Steinke is still awaiting trial.
After the murderer of one of novelist John Grisham's friends cited Natural Born Killers as an inspiration, Grisham spoke out against Oliver Stone and the film itself. When Warner Bros. was looking for a lead for the film adaptation of Grisham's A Time To Kill and suggested Woody Harrelson, Grisham, who had director and cast approval, said Harrelson would never be in a film he had anything to do with. Grisham has cited other reasons for not wanting Harrelson to play the role that Matthew McConaughey ended up playing, most notably that Harrelson "looked kind of dumbbell-ish".
On July 19, 2008, Eric Tavulares strangled his girlfriend, both 18, Lauren Aljubouri to death. Tavulares and Aljubouri had been watching the movie, and stopped it about half way through before going to bed. While having a conversation with Aljubouri in bed, he stated that he "switched mentally" and began strangling her. Upon arriving at the scene, Tavulares told police "I did it, I can't believe it. I did it." He later told police he was fascinated with the movie "Natural Born Killers", and had seen it 10 to 20 times. He faces up to 60 years in prison if convicted.
Stone considered Natural Born Killers his road film specifically naming Bonnie and Clyde as a source of inspiration. Both these films fall under the road story genre through their constant challenges of their diegetic society. While Bonnie and Clyde attempt to disintegrate the weakened economic and social landscape of the 1930s, Mickey and Mallory try to free America from the overarching conventions which influence the common masses. While the flights of both couples successfully challenge their respective societies, both films conclude with pessimistic outlooks regarding individual freedom within the American sphere of influence. The police's ambush of Bonnie and Clyde exhibits the empirical control of law enforcement over the individual. Natural Born Killers ends as it begins, suggesting the uninhibited influence of the mass media among common Americans; this is seen within the film as the diegetic audience and media turn Mickey and Mallory into international superstars.
The famous death scene in Bonnie and Clyde used innovative editing techniques provided by multiple cameras shot from different angles at different speeds; this sporadic interchange between fast-paced and slow-motion editing that concludes Arthur Penn's film is used throughout the entirety of Natural Born Killers.