Even for a director who feeds on outrage, Oliver Stone has topped himself with Natural Born Killers (Warner Bros., R). Feverish, psychedelic, insanely bloody, the movie is unlike anything you've seen before. It seems to have exploded directly from the filmmaker's psyche, a gonzo-poetic head trip about America's escalating culture of ultraviolence. Stone unfurls the tale of two good-looking young lovers, Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), who spend three weeks on a reckless homicidal bender, slaughtering strangers as if they were knocking off mosquitoes. They kill cops, waitresses, storekeepers, hitchhikers; they kill people they don't like and people who are nice to them. Overnight, they become celebrity psychopaths, superstars of the tabloid-media age.
Subversive in a way that recalls A Clockwork Orange (which mined a similar vein of pitch-black satirical horror), Natural Born Killers depicts violence, both real and imagined, as a kind of drug, a ruthlessly addictive force that has hooked an entire society. Stone's audacity, like Stanley Kubrick's before him, is that he dares to turn his film into one more hit of the drug, as hypnotic in its sensationalism as the world it's portraying. I think Natural Born Killers is brilliant the most haunting experience I've had at the movies this year yet it may turn out to be the love-it-or-hate-it film of the decade. Either you go with the flow of Stone's scabrous, seductive images or you don't.
Woody Harrelson's Mickey is a demented good ol' boy with a wily sneer and a twinkle in his eye. He and Mallory, a cackling punk nymph, aren't meant to be realistic characters. They're more like supercharged updates of the glamorous killerlovers in Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and other young-outlaws-on-the- lam fables. At no point do we feel much emotion for these two remorseless maniacs. What makes their lurid odyssey so mesmerizing is Stone's revolutionary cinematic style, a visual language at once lyrical, hallucinatory, and as deliriously assaultive as Mickey and Mallory themselves. Shooting on more than a dozen film and video stocks, and splicing in bits of old footage along with images of fire, predatory desert animals, and quivering devils, Stone makes you feel as if you're zapping through a 500-channel cable- TV system while stoned on peyote. At any given moment, Mickey and Mallory's story has the texture of a home movie, a documentary, a lush Hollywood romance, a slapdash reenactment on a TV crime show, or an image caught by a surveillance camera. The effect is to deny the characters any true ''reality.''
Stone has caught the surreal everyday madness of the image culture, in which our brains have been colonized by the mass media, jaded by mayhem, heightened by drugs. Natural Born Killers' fever-dream aesthetic may seem the apotheosis of MTV, except that Stone works with a free-associative dexterity that transcends MTV. His virtuoso image layering creates portents, echoes, sinister juxtapositions of past and present. The film is saying that the more we become full-time image receptors (even when the images are banal), the more life itself seems a collection of raw sensations divorced from empathy or meaning. Murder becomes just another cheap kick. Watching Natural Born Killers, we're really inside Mickey and Mallory's heads-we're watching the two of them watch themselves.
Though the movie sometimes has the feel of a crazed Godardian essay, Stone hasn't lost his entertainer's instincts. A flashback to Mallory's adolescence is staged as a foulmouthed sitcom, with her fetid, incestuous father played by Rodney Dangerfield-a bit of casting that quickly turns your laughter to shock. The shoot-out in which Mickey and Mallory are captured by the police is an operatic tour de force, with the strains of Carmina Burana creating an ironic backdrop to a ready-made media event. It's at this point that the film, after its impressionistic first half, begins to attain a true narrative thrust. In prison, Mickey grants a live TV interview to Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), the unctuous Aussie host of American Maniacs, who works himself up into sputtering fits of ''outrage.'' Harrelson's performance takes on a menacing charisma when Mickey, head shaved, sits down before the TV cameras, elevating his bloodlust into a scarily lucid nihilism.
The final section of Natural Born Killers is the most powerfully audacious filmmaking of Stone's career. As Mickey and Mallory launch their escape, transforming the prison into a charnel house, they take as a hostage Downey's hilariously self-righteous Wayne, who in the midst of broadcasting his predicament makes contact with the monster in himself. In Natural Born Killers, the demons that rise up from the natural world are reflected back at us through pop culture, and vice versa. The film isn't blaming violence in society on violence in the media. It's saying that they've become symbiotic, part of an apocalyptic chicken-and-egg cycle. Stone takes his characters right over the top, rubbing our noses in our own lust for excess, and some viewers are bound to say that he's gone too far. Yet this may be one case where too far is just far enough-where a gifted filmmaker has transformed his own attraction to violence into an art of depraved catharsis. A