Film: The business of murder: Oliver Stone's satire, Natural Born Killers has spawned a mini- industry of outraged analysis, as well as, it is alleged, a chain of copy-cat killings.

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The Independent Culture
When two young men were arrested in New Mexico after a cross-country crime rampage in which three people were murdered earlier this month, the American media's obsession with violence went into a spinning, self-referential overdrive.

As the crime spree wound its way across mid-America, Los Angeles TV newscasters labelled the pair as 'real natural born killers' - a reference to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, a film about the murderous escapades of two deranged lovers.

Stone has argued that anyone commiting an act of violence after seeing the film must already have been predisposed to violence (adding that even 'Schindler's List has someone blowing someone's head off'), and police stressed that there was no evidence that either suspect had seen the film, but the phrase was mimicked in news reports across the country. Deaths 'attributed' to the movie now stand at 10 and counting. Whirling into action, CNN's talk show Talkback invited Stone to participate in a panel to debate whether life imitates art with a studio audience and freephone callers.

And what Stone is telling everyone, in that bludgeoning self-righteous manner of his, is that he intended the film to be a scathing satire about the media's unquenchable thirst for violence - and how the public's response to crime has been deadened by the overload.

Natural Born Killers is a latter-day Bonnie and Clyde following Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) on their hyperbolically murderous trail. The love-crazed couple end up in prison, where they are interviewed for a tabloid TV show about serial killers by a ratings-hungry Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr). Thanks to the publicity, Mickey and Mallory become cult heroes.

It is tempting to put down Stone's conveniently sophisticated defence of NBK to well-he-would-say-that-wouldn't-he? But Stone does maintain a (none too subtle, as you might expect from this director) satiric tone throughout the movie. Mallory's childhood is recalled in flashback as a plodding sitcom, complete with sycophantic laughter, and, when the loving couple are in jail, hundreds of screaming fans demand their release, waving placards such as 'Murder me, Mickey'. Later, a blood-drenched Gale reports on the couple's jailbreak 'live'.

Stone's stated goal is to jar society out of its collective numbness by force-feeding it with a helping of violence that is too excessive to swallow. From the opening sequence, the film lurches into visual overdrive, with Stone utilising a manic array of technical trickery to maintain its extreme, hallucinatory tone. Its parody of dizzily frenetic MTV-style channel-surfing reinforces Stone's central point: the symbiotic link between violence and the media.

The problem is that, despite Stone's blunt message, the American public has been cheering along in all the wrong places, willing on the anti-heroes in an eerie echo of the current lionisation of O J Simpson. Newspapers have been showered with letters expressing horror at audience enthusiasm for Mickey and Mallory. 'When Jonathan Swift wrote his Modest Proposal in 1729, satirically suggesting the export of babies as delicacies to control overpopulation, the public expressed horror,' one perturbed teacher wrote to the Los Angeles Times. 'When Stone overreaches, audiences and critics cheer.'

Morton Kondracke, writing in the Dallas Morning News, described Stone as 'evil' and claimed that Natural Born Killers 'is likely to encourage morally deadened young people to commit vicious crimes, rather than produce any reform in society . . . inevitably, a small fraction will want to emulate the killers.' In the New York Times, Robert Upsyte, describing an exploratory visit to a pornographic shop, wrote: 'Compared to what I have been standing in line to pay dollars 8 for lately, and then having to argue whether or not it is art, this all seemed sort of fun. Natural Born Lovers?'

Natural Born Killers contains its own justification when Stone makes the obvious link between his satire and American society by flashing up images of O J Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt, the Menendez brothers and Tonya Harding, all of whom have become cult celebrities despite - or because of - their alleged or proven violence. 'When we set out to make Natural Born Killers in late 1992, it was surreal. By the time it was finished in 1994, it had become real,' the director has written. 'Each week America was deluged by the media with a new soap opera, ensuring ratings, money, and above all, continuity of the hysteria. Our society is bloated, not just with crime; but with the media coverage of it.'

In this, at least, Stone is right. The American media has overdosed not only on O J but on all of the above cases and many more. After the front pages, the features, the interviews, the wall-to-wall live courtroom coverage on television, the talk shows, the films, there is little in Stone's critique which doesn't ring true.

The Nineties have seen cartoon violence, in which style and humour have displaced motive and consequence, fare increasingly well at the box-office.

While Nick Scott's True Romance and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs were fashionable flops, True Lies, Schwarzenegger's sortie into Bond-style tongue-in-cheek violence, Robert Avary's Killing Zoe, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and now NBK (also scripted by Tarantino, but disowned due to 'artistic differences') have all done good business.

While the violence in these films is expressed in inverted commas, most Americans aren't attuned to post-modern irony. And there are already signs, ahead of its UK release (now subject to indefinite delay, as the censors agonise over awarding it a certificate), that the hysterical reading of the film will gain wide currency here, too.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail screamed on its front page 'Why this film MUST (underlined) be banned from Britain', adding (on page 22) that, 'It's the splatter that matters in Stone's evil 'satire' '.

There will be plenty more where that came from. For, take away the cartoon satire and the parody of pop television, and all that remains in the eye of the beholder is highly stylised violence inflicted by sexy young renegades.

The possibility that Stone is perpetuating the very thing he set out to condemn has intensified the debate over the nation's violence. American film and television companies say they face a difficult, potentially unsolvable problem in how to reflect the violence in the United States without exploiting it.

The controversy revolves around commerce as much as it does around ethics.

By all accounts, Hollywood's rating system is far more concerned with sex than with violence, which in the current climate encourages conglomerates to explore ways of producing 'socially responsible' violent films. In this way, both pro- and anti-violence film-goers are encouraged to pay to see the film, even if half of them walk out unhappy.

Natural Born Killers was a risky but successful investment for Time Warner.

The film reached number one at the box-office within three days of its opening and grossed dollars 11.2m ( pounds 7m) in its first weekend of showing. NBK is a good debate, but it's fabulous business.

Who cares whether the film is any good or not?

(Photograph omitted)