Raw Carnage Or Revelation?

The best and worst of Oliver Stone are on ample display in Natural Born Killers, a hyperactive, blood-spattered, semi-satirical visual onslaught that examines the American obsession with violence and the warped media values that turn killers into celebrities, murder into infotainment. The topic, amid O. J. fever and Menendez mania, couldn't be more timely, and Stone is, to say the least, a controversial man for the job. From the start, he's built his Oscar-garlanded career on violence, working out his own plentiful aggression on screen.

Now he wants to deconstruct the way the media present murder for our delectation. His radical method is clear in the opening sequence. In a roadside diner, mass murderers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) stab, blow away and otherwise slaughter nearly everyone in sight. From shot to shot, the style changes: from black and white to color, slow-mo to normal speed, 16 mm to 35, while the background music leaps from rock to opera. Disorienting us, Stone wants us to note how the medium alters the message -- he wants to force us to watch ourselves watching a movie. But he also -- make no mistake -- wants to stage a really bitchin' display of ultraviolence. Which he does.

Stylistically, "Natural Born Killers" makes "Platoon" look as delicate as Lubitsch. Here, the pedal is always to the floor. Stone's satirical strategy is overkill -- as if he believed that an overdose of orgiastic mayhem would be purgative. For two hours, Stone assaults us with everything in his virtuoso's arsenal: animation, video, back-projections, scratchy footage. Perhaps his most effectively unnerving ploy is to stage Mallory's recollection of her dysfunctional family in the style of a '50s sitcom, with Rodney Dangerfield as her abusive father mugging to a laugh track as he makes sexual overtures to his daughter. Soon after, Dad gets bludgeoned to death, and Mom is set on fire, commencing the young lovers' 52-person killing spree.

As the serial killers become celebrities, seen on the covers of Esquire and Newsweek, Stone's main satirical target worms his way aboard: Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), the fatuous Aussie host of the tabloid TV show "American Maniacs." Wayne wants to get a live interview with Mickey, and in the second half of the movie, when the lovers have been captured, he gets his chance. Because Downey is a gifted comic, some of this stuff is quite funny. But "Natural Born Killers" suffers from the disadvantage of being made by a man with little discernible sense of humor. Satire needs breathing space, and Stone locks himself into the hammering tempo of a heavy-metal music video. Last year's Belgian black comedy "Man Bites Dog," about a film crew following a serial killer, did it first, funnier and with a greater sense of horror.

Though Stone's movie is luridly packed with shotgun blasts, beatings, rattlesnakes and prison riots, the deaths have no sting. The only murder the killers regret is that of a wise old Indian -- an outburst of P.C. guilt that seems oddly out of character. All the other victims are dehumanized. Stone hasn't figured out how to make a movie about the estheticizing of violence without fetishizing it himself, thus aping what he's criticizing TV for. He can't help it -- he loves the visceral charge too much. Nor can Stone resist glamorizing his psychos: they may be brain dead, but they're the coolest people on screen. (And expertly performed by the stars.) The Bonnie-and-Clyde, loversontherun conceit presumably comes from Quentin Tarantino's original story -- thoroughly rewritten by Stone, David Veloz and Richard Rutowski. But it's a dated notion for an up-to-the-minute movie.

As it becomes more hectoring and repetitive, the satire gets crazily out of joint. Stone's deepest moral indignation is reserved for Wayne Gale and the media, whose hypocrisy troubles him a good deal more than the dead bodies Mickey and Mallory have left behind. It figures. The media have given the director a lot more grief over the years than any serial killers. But it's too easy to blame our fascination with violence on the tabloids. Stone has always viewed the world in terms of good guys and bad. There aren't any heroes this time, but by giving us an easily hissable villain he lets the audience off the hook: it's blame-the-messenger time again.

And he lets himself off too. What Stone can't acknowledge in his fitfully astonishing, ultimately numbing movie is that he and Wayne Gale are two sides of the same coin. Had he done so, "Natural Born Killers" might have gotten under the skin of the issues it tantalizingly raises. Instead, fighting fire with fire, the movie cancels itself out. You leave it more battered than enlightened. BRILLIANT NIGHTMARE

If Oliver Stone didn't exist, American culture would have to invent him. Throughout his career he's been a pterodactyl-size gadfly pushing our noses deep into some of our thorniest issues -- Vietnam, the JFK assassination, the youth revolt of the '60s. He has been rightly called a troublemaker for our times. In Natural Born Killers, Stone is making more trouble than ever. A creature of the media himself, he's assaulting the media for its crucial role in a process of dehumanization that seems to be an inescapable feature of mass society.

How does a filmmaker deal with the Catch-22 of presenting extreme violence without luxuriating in it? Stone handles the problem in a brutally logical fashion, by subjecting the movie medium itself to violence. In "The Wild Bunch," Sam Peckinpah made you feel violence by slowing it down to a voluptuous ballet of fleshly demolition. Stone reverses the process, speeding up his stream of images (he says "Killers" has 3,000 images) so that you have no rest, no place to collect your thoughts, to stabilize your senses, to get your bearings -- physical, esthetic, moral. Stone pulverizes the murderous acts of his youthful serial killers, Mickey and Mallory, into their behavioral particles: GLAM! goes the gun, and the "realistic" image ripsaws into a grainy TV image, a black-and-white home movie, a cartoon demon, a newsreel flash, a fragment from some cesspool of dreams.

With this fission of images Stone wants you to sense that the murderous behavior is erupting from a wrenching complexity of causes. There's no pseudo-Freudian claptrap, no New Age moral masturbation, and just enough perverse pleasure so that you don't miss the horrific fun that Mickey and Mallory are having. Stone never lets you forget that these kill-crazy kids are operating in good part out of some terrible pleasure principle. What drives them to do it? Stone's answer is brilliantly nightmarish. He gives us "I Love Mallory," a savage sitcom parody with Rodney Dangerfield as Mallory's incestuous slob father -- and her first victim. Casting Dangerfield was a fiendish inspiration. The no-respect comic, with the face of a paternal troglodyte, is like a character in Aristophanes, grotesquely and hilariously loathsome.

Stone doesn't use the sitcom parody to "explain" Mallory's behavior. The sitcom itself, with its cackling laugh track, is part of the cultural mindlessness he's evoking. If his killers are "brain dead," then what of the consumers of this culture? And what of the Mickey-and-Mallory fans interviewed by the local news shows, who say things like "I'm not saying I respect mass murder. But if I were a mass murderer I'd be Mickey and Mallory." These scenes predated the O. J. Simpson fans who rooted him on during his freeway flight. Stone's movie is the most all-out assault yet on American media as complicit with American violence. Even more gruesomely funny than "I Love Mallory" is "American Maniacs," the tabloid TV show run by Robert Downey Jr. as the Aussie-accented Wayne Gale (based on tab TV pioneer Steve Dunleavy, with whom Downey researched the role). Downey's performance is amazing -- he's cynical, devious, narcissistic and finally suicidally hysterical as he's caught up in the blood lust of M&M's apocalyptic breakout from prison.

Stone's movie is no random spew of MTV images. He shot it in 53 days but took a year to edit it. The film's multifarious formats are as precisely placed as the planes in a cubist Picasso. The movie is in fact a portrait of a new American mind dislocated and stupefied by vicarious violence. Its extravagant surrealism reflects reality. Parts of H. R. Haldeman's recently published diaries read like scenes from a Stone movie. In one, President Nixon and Co. are watching an anti-Vietnam demonstration on TV. Police are using tear gas on demonstrators who are carrying candles. Haldeman writes that Nixon "had helpful ideas like using helicopters to blow out their candles . . . Said was like watching an old movie, keep thinking something interesting will happen."

In "Natural Born Killers" something revelatory happens. The movie is enlightening, not because it transmits new information, but in the way that movies enlighten, through a synergy of images and rhythms that makes us sense the world in a new way. Stone's besetting fault is sentimentalism, here expressed in his idealization of the redemptive love between Mickey and Mallory. But even here, the performances of Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis produce an unsettling passion. The horror is the distortion of that passion to violence: you believe it when the slight Lewis, transfigured by nameless rage, beats the living hell out of some poor rednecks. Stone's flabbergasting movie cannot be dismissed; it must and will be fought over.