DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut

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    Feb 20, 2001
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    Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut

    Directed by: Oliver Stone

    Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 1994

    Rating: NR

    Film Length: 122 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 16:9

    Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese

    Release Date: October 13, 2009

    The Film ***½

    Natural Born Killers follows the exploits of outlaw couple Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) Knox on a multi-week spree of murder, mayhem, and wild expressions of mutual affection. As their cross-country rampage progresses, the viewer learns details of their twisted childhoods, how they met, and the disturbingly interdependent relationship between these killers, the media as represented by tabloid TV crime reporter Wayne Gale (Downey), law enforcement as represented by egomaniacal Detective Jack Scagnetti (Sizemore), and the general public who are viewing them through the filter of media. When the police finally catch up to them, they are incarcerated in a prison run by redneck Warden Jack McCluskey (Jones). The killing spree may be over, but the media frenzy and cult of personality are still going strong.

    No stranger to controversy in the wake of 1991's JFK, Director Oliver Stone generated yet another firestorm of charges of "irresponsible cinema" when he unleashed this over-the-top satire of media-glorified violence in 1994. Stone took a screenplay from Quentin Tarantino which was more or less an homage to 70s Roger Corman exploitation films laced with his trademark blend of violence, heavy dialog, and pop culture references, and re-worked its outlaw lovers on the run premise into a heavy-handed technically dazzling phantasmagoric indictment of the incestuous relationship between societal violence and popular media.

    I have mixed feelings about how effective it really is as satire since the fish-in-a-barrel targets of Stone's ire such as tabloid journalists, cowboy law enforcement, and star struck fans of criminals are generally self-parodying in their real life incarnations. On top of that, the film seems to alternate inconsistently between reveling in the violence being depicted not unlike its media targets and then backing-off through a layer of ironic detachment. Stone seems to be pushing a theme of "love beating the demon" towards the end of the film's two primary acts, but, as facile as that may seem, one never gets the sense that he is fully committed to it, making the film feel like a mass of self-contradictions.

    That being said, there is no denying the visceral impact of the "everything but the kitchen sink" bag of cinematic tricks Stone hurls at the material. The editing is kinetic almost beyond words to describe, and the varieties of film (and video) stocks and styles of shooting and staging the outrageously violent set-pieces make the film resemble an unabridged dictionary of cinematic style. Most impressively of all, all of this material is thrown at the viewer in a way that always seems to make some kind of literal or subtextual sense. Unlike other film's cut together at a strobe-light tempo (I'm looking at you, Moulin Rouge), one never gets the sense that Stone is trying to force a sense of excitement and energy onto the scenes or performances. He instead seems to be following the cues of his character's twisted psyches and representing them through madcap stream of consciousness "Eisensteinian" visual abstractions.

    One look at the cast list reveals a group of actors who all seem to have "twisted" and "madcap" firmly within their skill set, and it is to Stone's credit as a director that he manages to guide them through so many different styles of shooting and staging scenes while eliciting emotionally consistent but technically varied performances from each and every one of them.

    The end result may fall short of its satirical intent, but it is a fascinating overreach on Stone's part that is worth a couple of viewings on its technical merits alone assuming the viewer has the stomach to tolerate the extreme violence.

    The Video ****½

    Back when Warner categorically refused to distribute unrated NC-17 equivalent material on DVD, they had licensed this Director's Cut to Trimark who released a DVD that was more or less just the laserdisc SE in convenient five inch disc form. This presentation corrects most of the A/V problems associated with that release. The film is presented on DVD with a transfer that fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. It is generally a very solid presentation that works better than any previous SD video presentation I have seen at capturing the varied textures of the film's multi-source (8mm, 16mm, 35mm, video) cinematography. Resolution and definition are important in conveying these textures, and this DVD encoding with its relative lack of video artifacts and solid compression with only light filtering are as close an SD video surrogate as one will find to the theatrical experience.

    The Audio ****

    The primary audio option is and English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It presents the extremely layered and detailed mix with acceptable fidelity. Consistent with the original theatrical presentation, the surrounds are used sparingly and conservatively, but the extremely layered and detailed front hemisphere-focused mix still impresses A Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish dub track is also available.

    The Extras ****

    Many of these extras spread across the two discs are derived from earlier releases of the film, most dating back to a 1996 laserdisc. I have highlighted previously available extras via placing them in "quote boxes" below so that the newly produced material can be easily identified. All extras are presented in 4:3 full frame video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound and available Portuguese and Japanese subtitles unless otherwise indicated below:

    Disc One

    Introduction from Director Oliver Stone (16:9 enhanced video - 3:41) Is a brief interview intercut with film clips in which Oliver Stone welcomes the viewer to the director's cut DVD, recites the Octavio Paz and Theodore Roethke quotes that are available in multiple other supplements included in this set, spoils the ending of the movie, opines about the movie's themes and violence, discusses the editorial history of the film, and states that satire if it is working should be about shock.
    Commentary from Director Oliver Stone - is a feature length commentary that is one of the better ones offered up by Stone. He is well-prepared, but seems more relaxed and conversational than on some of his other tracks. He addresses several technical aspects of the film's production, thematic issues, motifs, symbolism, editorial decisions, and his views on the film's detractors and the related controversy. He occasionally lapses into stating the obvious up to and including narration of on-screen events, but these instances are rare and brief. I can almost guarantee that any given listener will find something to disagree with in Stone's comments, but they are nonetheless a fascinating look into the thought process that went into making the film.

    Disc Two

    NBK Evolution: How Would it All Go Down Now?(16:9 enhanced video - 22:10) is a newly produced retrospective featurette that takes a look at the film from the vantage point of fifteen years later. There is some overlap with previous material, but the most interesting new stuff looks at how modern media has evolved in the ensuing period with the explosion of the internet turning anyone with a computer into a reporter and anyone with a cell phone camera into a paparazzi. The first fourteen and a half minutes consists of interview segments offering modern perspectives on the film and state of modern media from on-camera interview subjects Oliver Stone, Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, "A Current Affair" Tabloid Reporter Steve Dunleavy, Joey Buttafuoco, X17 Paparazzi Agency Co-Owner Brandy Navarre, boingboing.net co-editor Xeni Jardin, and self-made celebrity Tila Tequila. After that, it goes into a "what if" thought experiment about how the events of the movie would be reported today with input from several people involved in the current modern web-based media including Navarre, Jardin, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, flickr general manager Kakul Srivastava, and YouTube News Manager Olivia Ma.
    Chaos Rising: The Storm Around "Natural Born Killers" (26:28) - is a mid-90s featurette made by Charles Kiselyak. It offers a pretty comprehensive overview of the film's production for its relatively modest running time. While there is some overlap with the commentary, this featurette benefits greatly from offering up a multitude of perspectives on the chaos, both naturally occurring and manufactured, surrounding the film's production and release. It consists of a montage of film clips, behind the scenes glimpses, and sometimes surprisingly frank on-camera interview comments from Stone, Harrelson, Lewis, Tom Sizemore, (a clearly not sober) Robert Downey, Jr., Producer Jane Hamsher, Tommy Lee Jones, Producer Don Murphy, Editor Hank Corwin, and Cinematographer Bob Richardson. This one is definitely worth a viewing or two for fans of the film.
    Deleted Scenes (24:27 w/"Play All" & Stone Introductions - 20:55 w/Play All & no introductions)
    • The Desert - Extended sequence of how Mickey and Mallory are stranded and eventually encounter a Native American in the desert. According to Stone, it was cut, with some expressed regret, for length.
    • Steven Wright - Extended shot on video interview segment between Downey's tabloid reporter and a psychiatrist played by Wright. A little less than half of it was used in the finished film.
    • The Courtroom - Deleted complete sequence of an episode at Mickey's trial where Mickey is allowed to cross examine a witness played by Ashley Judd. It was deleted by Stone because it did not fit with Mickey and Mallory's character arcs at that point in the film, but it could just as well have been deleted because it was a terrible scene despite some amusing Tarantino dialog and good performances by the actors.
    • The Hun Brothers - is a shot on video interview segment between Downey's character and body builders Peter and David Paul (aka the "Barbarian Brothers") playing a variation on their own personas called "The Hun Brothers" who are dismembered victims of Mickey and Mallory. It was deleted because of length and over-acting which Stone blames on his direction.
    • The Drive-In - Is a scene intended to be inserted after Tom Sizemore's Scagnetti commits an extreme act in a motel room and before Mickey and Mallory head to a drugstore for some snake venom antidote. It was intended to serve as a rhythmic editorial pause, but was ultimately removed for reasons of pacing and plausibility.
    • Denis Leary - is a motor-mouthed stream of consciousness monologue by Leary playing a mental patient riffing on the whole Mickey and Mallory phenomenon. It is actually very good, but was ultimately deemed unnecessary for the film.
    Alternate Ending (4:58) After a 90 second introduction by Stone, this presents an extensive unused ending for the film that provides a larger role and purpose for a mysterious character played by Arliss Howard in the film. To describe it in more detail would spoil not only it but the actually used ending of the film, so I will leave it at that. It is interesting, but I dislike Howard's performance in it and prefer the ending that was used.
    Charlie Rose Interview with Oliver Stone (11:39) is an excerpt from Stone's appearance on The Charlie Rose Show in the wake of the controversy surrounding the film's release. Things occasionally got a bit prickly, which makes for a pretty good interview.
    Theatrical Trailer (1:48) Called a "Director's Cut Trailer" on the packaging, it is actually the theatrical trailer. It starts with a survey of Stone's career to date before a rapid montage of clips from the film with voiceover informing the viewer that they will be shocked.


    The DVDs are packaged in a standard Amaray-szied "Ecobox" case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The movie is on the first disc along with the extras indicated above with disc two consisting entirely of extras.  The interior insert for the box consists of a 48 page booklet with a 2009 Stone introduction (redundant if you have seen the video introduction), an unaccredited introductory essay, biographical notes on Stone and the five principal cast members, a couple of pages of trivia factoids, another unaccredited essay on the film's place in the context of violent and outlaw cinema, and an additional essay with pre-release remarks from Stone from 1994, some of which also inform the new video introduction.


    This two-disc DVD release of the director's cut of Oliver Stone's hyper-violent, controversial, audacious, and alternatingly brilliant and frustrating Natural Born Killers addresses most of the audio and video shortcomings of prior releases of the film while adding a couple of interesting features to a collection of the best previously available extras. It is an easy recommendation for fans of the film, although due to the importance of texture and visual detail to the film's impact, viewers so-equipped may be better served picking up the concurrent blu-ray release.



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