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All Shot to Hell: Natural Born Killers

A frame-by-frame guide to the mise-en-sin of ‘Killers’

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Whether you’re pumped or repelled by the acid-flash, stream-of-unconsciousness style of Natural Born Killers, you’re likely to keep asking yourself the same thing as the movie unfolds: What the hell is going on? Juiced up with more disjunctive, outre film techniques than any major-studio movie has dared to use, it’s a road movie that, stylewise, jumps all over the map. Here, a navigator’s guide to what you’ll see on the trip:

* An avalanche of film stocks and formats. NBK spits out a startlingly variegated range of photographic images: snapshots and Polaroids; Beta videotape; and Super-8, 16 mm, and 35 mm footage-now color, now black and white, now grainy, now not. ”Coming back to color after being away from it, it’s much more powerful,” says Stone. ”It’s like a Rorschach test. When you mix things up, you can get some enormous revelations into the characters’ psyches.”

* Slow motion and strobed motion. Like vain athletes watching their own instant replays, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) constantly relive their exploits in their heads, sometimes in fluid slow-mo, sometimes in a jerkier, stop-action style.

* Unrealistic rear projection. When Mickey and Mallory take off in their 1970 Dodge Challenger, we see them parked in front of a flat, fake-looking screen, which sometimes simulates a passing roadway but more often displays blown-up montages of newspaper headlines, cheering passersby, and sundry flashbacks. ”We were playing with the idea of putting interior states (of mind) on the screen,” says Stone. And what about that weird newsreel footage of genocidal atrocities playing in the windows of Mick and Mal’s cheap motel room? ”We’re saying, the century is always there. How can we escape Hitler and Stalin and Armenia and Vietnam?”

, * Superquick close-ups. All through the movie, there are flash cuts of horrible, freakish faces, what the crew came to call ”the demon gallery”: Harrelson’s Mickey drenched in blood; Robert Downey Jr.’s TV tabloidist done up with devil horns; a grotesque, walking, decapitated corpse (actually one of the movie’s editors with his head removed via digital special effects).

* Colored lights. Many scenes turn unexpectedly lurid with overwhelming floods of blue, red, or green light, most notably a sequence in which Mickey and Mallory, deluded from snakebites, are apprehended outside an enormous pharmacy. ”Bob (Richardson, the director of photography) went out and bought something like 200 green fluorescents,” says Stone. ”It was a huge investment. It made the place look like a jar of hell.”

* Heavy-metal animation. Inspired by a sequence he saw on MTV’s Liquid Television, Stone commissioned animator Mike Smith to create a cartoon of Mick and Mal as hypermuscled superheroes. It was to unfold in a scene where the venom-doped lovers hallucinate at a drive-in, imagining themselves on screen. But when the scene was dropped, Stone inserted the animation elsewhere, partly because he loved it and partly because ”it was so expensive.”