Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
Natural Born Killers (Blu-ray)
15th Anniversary Director’s Cut
Studio: Warner Home Video
Film Length: 122 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; Spanish DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH; French; Spanish; Arabic; Bahasa; Bulgarian; Dutch; Finnish; German; Greek; Hebrew; Icelandic; Indonesian Bahasa; Norwegian; Portugese; Swedish; Thai; Turkish
Disc Format: 1 50 GB
Package: Keepcase with 42-page booklet
Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 26, 1994
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 13, 2009
There was a time when Warner Bros. couldn’t get far enough away from Natural Born Killers. After a successful theatrical run in the fall of 1994, the film became a hot potato the following May, when then-Senator Bob Dole, no doubt with an eye to the following year’s presidential campaign, gave a widely quoted speech condemning Time Warner as the single worst purveyor of “cultural contamination” among media companies. The two examples cited by Dole as “nightmares of depravity” were NBK and the Ice-T album Body Count, which contained the track “Cop Killer”. The company quickly shifted into damage control mode, and one of the casualties was the director’s cut of NBK, which Warner had previously promised Oliver Stone to release after a lengthy battle with the MPAA over the theatrical release.
How times change. Bob Dole retired from politics and became a spokesman for Viagra. (It also came out that he’d never even seen NBK.) Ice-T now plays a cop on TV. And Warner has come to consider NBK a sufficiently notable entry in its film library that last year it gave the theatrical cut the same Blu-ray digibook treatment extended to such luminaries as Batman, The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption and How the West Was Won (among others). And now, fifteen years after the film first played in theaters, it’s releasing the director’s cut on Blu-ray and DVD.
But it’s not as if the director’s cut was buried away all these years. Other versions have appeared, and they are discussed below. Until now, though, NBK has suffered from the paradox that the best audio and video were available only on the compromised theatrical cut of the film.
Fair warning. This review assumes that the reader is familiar with NBK. If you’re not, you will encounter spoilers, and I refer you instead to the very fine review of the theatrical cut Blu-ray by my colleague Cameron Yee. Instead of trying to summarize the plot, I’m going to focus on what differentiates the director’s cut from the version released to theaters. It is, of course, impossible to address this without touching on what makes the film controversial, disturbing and, even today, deeply offensive to some viewers. As with certain other satirical films that were deemed over-the-top when they first appeared (Network comes to mind), time has proven NBK to be annoyingly prescient. There are nights when I turn on the TV, and I could swear Wayne Gale is on.
Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: The director’s cut of NBK does not include any of the six deleted scenes that have appeared with various editions of the film, including the Blu-ray of the theatrical cut. (These are commonly known as: The Desert; Steven Wright; The Courtroom; The Hun Brothers; The Drive-In; and Denis Leary.) All of this material was removed during the editing process before the film was submitted to the MPAA. It was Stone’s decision to remove them, and he hasn’t changed his mind.
The director’s cut of NBK is only 3 minutes longer, but it restores over 150 trims (Stone says 155 in his introduction to this edition). The restorations occur throughout the film, focusing almost entirely on the intense scenes of chaotic violence. Stone started NBK as a light summer action film (“We’ll do something Arnold Schwarzenegger will be proud of”, he says in the Chaos Rising documentary described below). But it quickly morphed into something more ambitious: a furious, Swiftian satire of a society built on violence that had produced, as its inevitable product, Mickey and Mallory Knox, a pair of star-crossed lovers who were now randomly destroying bits and pieces of the world that had produced them, with no care or concern for the consequences (because, as Mickey says early in the film, “The whole world’s comin’ to an end, Mal!”).
What bothered the MPAA was not the violence per se, but the perspective from which it was portrayed. The violence in NBK is not contained, organized, legitimized or apportioned between right and wrong. It’s all appalling, it’s all part of the same damn mess, and the mess is all ours. One can reject Stone’s vision (and many have), but one ought to at least experience it in full first. If you don’t show the whole canvas, it’s like painting over parts of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights because they’re too disturbing. They’re supposed to be. That’s the point. At the very least, it’s the kind of safe but unsettling experience that works of art are good for. (Co-star Tommy Lee Jones draws a comparison to Picasso’s Guernica.)
In the ultimate example of a snake eating its own tale (snakes being a major motif in the film), the very world being attacked responds by elevating Mickey and Mallory to the exalted status of celebrity – and in modern America there is no higher status. (Tell me honestly that this line from some Mickey and Mallory fans doesn’t sound like something that could be said in an interview today, given the right “coolness” factor: “Don’t get us wrong. We respect human life and all. But if I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.”) Now there’s a perfect feedback loop: the more violence, the better the ratings. This is the true hell on earth.
Violence as a product of society was not a new subject for the movies, nor was the cult of celebrity. Taxi Driver, to pick just one example, dealt with both, even using undeserved celebrity as an ironic coda to Travis Bickle’s story. But NBK linked them in a new way that was potent and angry, and it aimed a harsh spotlight at the media that the media bitterly resented (as the film's stars quickly learned during the press tour). Even before All the President’s Men, journalists were used to being portrayed as good guys. The crusading reporter is a stock film character even today (e.g., State of Play), and even when they make mistakes, they usually redeem themselves by the end of the film (as in Absence of Malice). But in NBK, the media are portrayed as exactly what Mickey calls them: scum.
The director’s cut shoves the audience’s face much closer to the violence being exploited by the media. Take, for example, the opening diner scene where Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, in performances that still chill the blood) casually murder five people and clearly have a great time doing it. Mallory’s beating of Sonny (Richard Lineback) goes on a bit longer and now includes a wash of red blood. Mickey’s gutting of Sonny’s buddy (James Gammon) and the removal of his index finger are longer and more detailed. The whirling knife that impales their friend running for his truck now crashes more graphically through the diner window. Everything about the scene is amped up and more extreme.
If Mickey and Mallory were no more complex than the gleeful psychopaths of the opening diner scene, the film wouldn’t have much to offer (and it would quickly become dull snuff porn). But NBK keeps whipsawing our sympathies back and forth. Thus, shortly after the diner scene, we get Mallory’s horrific background presented in the ironic (and, let’s face it, very funny) sitcom parody entitled “I Love Mallory”. It was a stroke of genius to have beloved comic Rodney Dangerfield play Mallory’s wife-beating, sexually abusive father, and Dangerfield gave a terrifying, no-holds-barred performance proving once again that great comics have to be great actors.
By the time Mickey arrives with his beef delivery (with a wink to the applauding studio audience that makes you think you’re watching an episode of Cheers), your sympathies have swung not only to Mallory but to Mickey as her rescuer. The sympathy doesn’t completely dissipate even when Mickey breaks out of prison and the two of them brutally murder her father. Not until they tie Mallory’s mother (a battered wife, let’s not forget) to the bed and light her on fire are you fully reminded of what a monster this monstrous family has loosed on the world. “You’re free!” Mallory calls out to her little brother (played by Stone’s son, Sean), as she and Mickey flee the blaze. But the images of her father and of flames that loom throughout the film demonstrate that there’s no such thing.
Similar shifts dominate the first half of NBK. A quiet interlude in a motel room seems like a gentle moment between lovers, until the camera reverses to the terrified young woman trussed in the corner. When the scene ends in a lovers’ quarrel, Mickey and Mallory resolve it the way many couples foolishly do: by each sleeping with someone else, the difference being that here each someone else ends up dead (and Mickey’s kill is worse in the director’s cut).
At the same time, though, the folks on the side of the law don’t exactly have the moral high ground. The chief cop hunting Mickey and Mallory is Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). A publicity hound so brazen that the title of his book is his own name (twice!), he’s also a secret murderer. And then there’s Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.), the sleazy Australian TV journalist, whose broadcasts have been instrumental in making Mickey and Mallory national heroes. After Mickey and Mallory are apprehended at the midpoint of the film (another sequence that is substantially more violent in the director’s cut), these two characters move to center stage, along with Tommy Lee Jones’ Dwight McClusky, warden of Batongo State Prison where Mickey and Mallory are sent.
The second half of the film is where the MPAA had the most problems, and it’s also the part that benefits most from the restorations. You can immediately see the issue, because the second half is where the forces of law and order should prevail but are instead shown to be both corrupt and inept. Seemingly unable to conclude a trial for either Mickey or Mallory Knox, Warden McClusky engages Scagnetti to transport them to a mental institution, with a secret mission to kill them along the way. Scagnetti is only too happy to oblige, but first he wants to rape Mallory in her cell (or possibly rape and strangle her, as he did with a prostitute the night he captured the Knoxes). Meanwhile, Wayne Gale is trying to arrange an interview with Mickey, which he manages to do as a live event after the Superbowl, because in this world media trumps everything.
Even if you’ve never seen the film before, you know that an escape is coming, but nothing quite prepares you for the wild, charnel house disorder of the prison riot that erupts during Mickey’s interview. I remember sitting in the theater in 1994 thinking, “Something’s not right here.” After all the build-up, it seemed somewhat . . . tame. Well, it was. The sequence that Stone originally filmed and cut together (in a real prison, with real prisoners as extras) is gruesome and garish in the extreme, with throats being cut, multiple gunfire wounds, a head on a pike and a general sense of armageddon. It makes every sequence that’s gone before look tame, and it makes Mickey and Mallory look like part of a crowd of natural born killers: home grown, corn fed, American as apple pie. If the sequence isn’t there at full throttle, the film is thrown severely out of balance.
By the end of the film, when Mickey, Mallory and Wayne Gale are alone in the forest for a final confrontation, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel about Mickey and Mallory. Would it be better for the world if they were lying in the heap of bodies back at Batongo State Prison? Or are we so conditioned to root for the heroes (even anti-heroes) that we’re glad they made it out? They say they’re done killing, and Stone is on record as saying that he thinks they’ve learned at last to love, which is the only way to break the cycle of violence. When they kill Gayle and disappear, they free themselves from the media as well.
I’m not convinced, though. There’s something unsettling about those closing credit shots of the Knox family, now with children in tow, speeding down America’s highways. I have to wonder what the home schooling is like.
Previous releases. After Warner balked at releasing the director’s cut of NBK, Stone persuaded them to relinquish the rights so that he could bring it to another company. The result was a lavishly produced 3-disc Pioneer laserdisc special edition released in July 1996 and overseen by producer Charles Kiselyak. It offered the director’s cut with a newly remixed soundtrack in DD 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo, along with a commentary by Stone and a rich assortment of special features. Many, but not all, of the special features have been included with this Blu-ray.
DVD was just getting off the ground at the time. The director’s cut of NBK made its appearance on a region 1 DVD in January 2000 in a release by the now-defunct Trimark Home Video. The DVD was a direct port of the Pioneer LD transfer, which meant that it was not enhanced for 16:9 and provided much less of an upgrade than might have been expected from a move to the digital format. The primary benefit was that you no longer needed to change sides and discs. Most, but not all, of the Pioneer LD special features were included.
In a word, fabulous. Both Cameron’s review and Robert Harris’ overview of the theatrical cut Blu-ray praised the hi-def rendering of this tricky material, and the director’s cut is every bit its equal. Director of photography Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar for creating the remarkable collage of formats and elements that make up J.F.K., went much, much further here, creating a visual style that is designed to keep the viewer as severely off-balance visually as the subject matter does emotionally. (And I’m not talking about “shaky-cam”. Richardson’s shots are steady; it’s the angles and the media that unsettle.) Editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan added to the visual challenge when they suggested “subjective” editing using rear projections, thereby adding further elements to challenge the compressionist. The transfer on this Blu-ray handles all of these items beautifully and presents an image that looks exactly as it’s supposed to, which means that some images will be very grainy, some will be gorgeously smooth and elegant, some will be blown out and some will be noisy and oversaturated (e.g., the entire “I Love Mallory” sequence). Love it or hate it, this is NBK as it should be seen.
This sounds like the same mix that was done for the 1996 Pioneer LD, and the TrueHD rendition is excellent. The dialogue in NBK frequently detaches from the images on screen, as the scene shifts in characters’ imaginations or memories, and then returns. While this must have been a challenge for the sound designer, the TrueHD track renders it accurately. The song-laden soundtrack, one of the best-selected and best-integrated of any film I know, is vivid and powerful. Key sound effects, like the rattlesnake sounds during the desert scenes, bounce through the surrounds, and gun shots and body blows have a sickening impact.
The DD compatibility track is mastered at 640kb/ps, substantially higher than both the Pioneer LD and the Trimark DVD. I sampled it briefly and found it to be very good. Even if you lack TrueHD capability, this Blu-ray will sound exceptional.
Note: As with all recently released Warner Blu-rays I have acquired or reviewed, NBK defaults to the TrueHD track. The DD compatibility track is not even listed on the menu.
Introduction by Oliver Stone (3:43) (HD). This is a new introduction for this Blu-ray (and accompanying DVD release). Much of what Stone says is familiar from previous comments, including his invocation of the poet Octavio Paz, but the curious note is that, if you didn’t know otherwise, you might think this was the first time the director’s cut was seeing the light of day. While this may be a diplomatic approach for Warner’s sake, it’s somewhat surprising from a director known for his frankness.
Commentary by Oliver Stone. This is the same commentary heard on previous releases of NBK, going back to the 1996 Pioneer LD.
NBK Evolution: How It Would All Go Down Now? (21:59) (HD). This is the sole special feature that’s new. It contains current interviews with Stone, Harrelson and Lewis, the latter two being the more interesting simply because they haven’t had as many opportunities to talk about the film on the record. It also offers interview clips with retired Current Affair and New York Post reporter Steve Dunleavy, who was one of the models for Wayne Gayle. Dunleavy remains so smugly self-satisfied that one may feel the urge to reach for Mickey’s shotgun.
Of somewhat less interest is a series of interviews with web entrepreneurs and personalities speculating on how the story of NBK might play out in today’s culture of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and viral celebrity. The reason these interviews aren’t very interesting is because the subjects can’t go beyond thinking of Mickey and Mallory as real people and positing how they and their fans would use the web. None of those interviewed have the wit (or the distance) to look at the web the way NBK looked at the media. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that, if it all went down now, it wouldn’t be Wayne Gale lying in a pool of blood at the end of the film; it would be one of them – maybe a lot of them.
Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers (26:30) (SD). This is the documentary made by Charles Kiselyak, who produced the 1996 Pioneer LD where it first appeared. It also appeared on the 2000 Trimark DVD but not on the 2008 Blu-ray.
Chaos Rising is a great documentary, because it interviews so many participants at a time when their memories were still fresh. Interviewees included Stone; Harrelson; Lewis; Downey; Tommy Lee Jones; Sizemore; co-producer (now political blogger) Jane Hamsher, who would later write a nasty but entertaining tell-all book, Killer Instinct, on the making of the film; co-producer Don Murphy, whose most recent credits include the Transformers films; and short snippets with director of photography Richardson and co-editor Corwin. Some fascinating on-set footage is included, particularly from the prison shoot.
The shoot was as chaotic as the subject matter. As Harrelson says, it’s the first time in his career he’s been the sanest person in the group. When Hamsher, a producer – and remember, producers are supposed to be the responsible ones – casually tells the interviewer about going on a cross-country location scout with Stone where everyone was “doing mushrooms”, you begin to get some sense of the crazy mentality that made this film possible. By the end, everyone was so exhausted that, when Sizemore began the scene where, as Scagnetti, he knocks on Mallory’s cell door and calls out, “Wake up, Mallory!”, he had to stop, because Lewis really was asleep. After she got some rest, they resumed, but during the staged fight that ensues, the action went too far and Sizemore broke his nose. He recalls looking at Stone and seeing in the director’s eyes that there was no way they were calling time out. Lewis was awake now, and Sizemore would have to tough it out.
Of all the participants, I find Tommy Lee Jones the most memorable. Though a man of few words, this Oscar-winning Texan with a Harvard degree has always struck me as a fiercely independent and intelligent thinker. The contempt that radiates from him when he dismisses the film’s critics burns through the screen.
Charlie Rose Interview (11:38) (SD). This excerpt from the well-known PBS talk show dates from the time of the film’s release and was included on the Blu-ray of the theatrical cut. It’s not one of Stone’s best interviews, but that’s primarily due to Rose’s shortcomings as an interviewer. I have always regarded Rose as someone who goes out of his way to find interesting guests for the apparent purpose of asking them the dumbest possible questions. Leading with a quotation attacking NBK from Stone’s ex-wife (their divorce having been famously bitter), is the kind of interview tactic one would expect from Wayne Gale. As the interview progresses, the irritation on Stone’s face is obvious.
Deleted Scenes, with introductions by Oliver Stone (20:49) (SD). These are the same six scenes that have appeared on nearly every video release of the film, director’s cut or theatrical, since they were first presented on the 1996 Pioneer LD. Although Stone says that one of the scenes (an alternate introduction of the shaman character played by Russell Means) is one he’d like to put back into the film, he has never done so, and none of these scenes belong in the film, despite occasional confusion to the contrary.
Note: Warner’s menu incorrectly indicates that these scenes come with commentary and even provides a check box to select it. There is no such commentary, only Stone’s introduction to each scene, which is not user-selectable.
Alternate Ending, with introduction by Oliver Stone (4:54) (SD). This also originated with the 1996 Pioneer LD and has appeared on nearly every video release since then. It’s an ending that might have better satisfied a certain segment of the audience, but it would have been the wrong ending, both thematically and in dramatic terms.
Trailer (SD). The film’s trailer is included, and unfortunately it’s in 4:3 and hasn’t been restored. It’s a terrific trailer and fairly represents the film, which is more than can be said of many trailers.
Booklet. The booklet is included inside the Blu-ray case and reproduces the material included in the digibook accompanying the 2008 Blu-ray of the theatrical cut.
What’s missing. I know: What more could there be? Well, a few things disappeared when the 3-disc Pioneer LD set migrated to a single Trimark DVD, and they haven’t resurfaced in this Warner Blu-ray. None of these items should be a deal-breaker, but consumers have a right to be informed, don’t they?
The first missing item is a Nine Inch Nails video for the song “Burn”. Music videos are frequent victims when special editions of films get recast (as anyone who’s ever tried to find the Guns ‘n’ Roses video for Terminator 2 can attest). This one hasn’t been seen since the Pioneer LD box set.
A more substantive missing item is about 45 minutes of commentary “outtakes” by Stone that were like an “easter egg” on side six of the Pioneer LD set and have never shown up again. I call them “outtakes”, because Stone refers repeatedly to specific scenes of the film as if they were currently playing, even though most of the side is devoted to the Chaos Rising documentary. As you listen, it becomes obvious that parts of Stone’s commentary were stitched together and thrown into this “extra” space in the left analog channel of side six for reasons that remain mysterious. Some of the comments are genuinely interesting, e.g., technical observations on filming the “I Love Mallory” TV show parody.
In the Chaos Rising documentary, Stone speaks almost wistfully of (unidentified) “younger” filmmakers who, in his view, treat violence as something “hip” and “cool” because they’ve never experienced the real thing and its consequences. (Stone, a combat veteran, says movie violence at its worst is a “pale imitation” of the real thing, and I’m in no position to disagree.) Ironically, that very charge of trivializing violence was leveled against NBK by viewers so repelled by the film that they looked for any excuse to dismiss it.
But a much better example appeared in theaters about six weeks after I first saw NBK – and I’m deliberately choosing a great film, an acknowledged masterpiece, because I don’t want to stack the deck: Pulp Fiction. If ever there was a film where violence has no real consequences, other than to determine the direction of the story, that’s it. I love Pulp Fiction; I can still watch it and be entertained by every minute of it. But I’m haunted by NBK, and fifteen years haven’t lessened its power to disturb, because everything it explored is still with us, only worse.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (Dolby TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub