The Truth About american psycho and natural born killers

the truth will set us free . . .

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers
Photo: Warner Bros.

Once again, in recent days, weeks, months, in this country we’ve been subjected to the scapegoating of media and popular culture as a supposedly serious explanation for criminal acts of violence. It is a tired statement and a tired theory, but one that is apparently not tired enough to avoid mention. This particular crusade is one that needs to be defeated to allow us to turn our collective energies and attention to productive discussions. Having a working understanding of the media/popular culture targeted by those who seek to turn the discussion away from the REAL problems, along with the knowledge that this scapegoating of violent media doesn’t carry any weight outside of this country, can disarm it. In terms of discussing the influence of film on American society and the alarmingly frequent and horrifically violent acts perpetrated by Americans on other Americans, we have recently heard, AGAIN, two specific films called out and scapegoated, American Psycho and Natural Born Killers; despite the field day that these so-called “film critics” could have had with movies actually from this decade like Killers, from 2010 (oops, that’s an Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl romantic comedy). Taking a closer look at both American Psycho and Natural Born Killers, it becomes clear how weak both movies are when called out as examples of media “aired like propaganda loops on ‘Splatterdays’ and every day.”

The first “blood-soaked slasher film” to be mentioned, every time we get down to the “blood-soaked slasher film” influence on Americans is American Psycho, released in 2000. We can only surmise that the combination of “American” and “Psycho” in the film’s title just makes this movie IRRESISTIBLE to the movie scapegoaters. American Psycho is that Christian Bale movie in which Bale’s character talks in great detail and at great length about Huey Lewis and The News before murdering Jared Leto with an axe in a New York apartment. (And yes, we are Huey Lewis and The News fans. “Sports” anyone? The Eighties LIVE!) For those who are unfamiliar with the film, American Psycho is based on an even more disturbing novel by Bret Easton Ellis and was directed by Mary Harron. Set in the 1980s (just pointing out our Love For All Things Eighties . . . ), it is about a wealthy investment banker (Bale’s Patrick Bateman) who is also a serial killer.

Indeed, Harron’s film is, like thousands of other movies that would get any organization laughed out of a press conference, violent. However, we take issue with attempting to use American Psycho as an example of “pornographic” gun usage. The whole “pornographic gun usage thing essentially backfires upon even a cursory examination of American Psycho. American Psycho’s strongest use of guns, if not the only sequence in which the film’s title character even uses firearms, is in a moment that features a blatantly over-the-top shootout with police, complete with exploding cop cars. In the scene Bateman actually looks at a handgun in clear disbelief at the exaggerated carnage it causes. This is the same sequence that begins its nutty turn with an ATM asking Bateman, “Feed Me A Stray Cat.” To what I’m sure makes many person breathe a large sigh of great relief, the ATM is not, in fact, fed a stray cat, although there is a gasp-inducing moment involving a kitten. (What does it say that the ATM/kitten scene is, sort of, more shocking than anything else in American Psycho? It’s the only “slap your hands over your mouth scene in the movie – for fear of kitten ATM-ing.)

More than anything, American Psycho is a thoroughly bloody satire centered around anonymity in the business world (and The Big Apple), where the identity and truth behind the psychological stability of the character is vague, even at the very end. American Psycho is a film that seeks to understand the capacity of its title character, especially in a world that seems to cater to and even encourage, his destructive impulses.

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Second on the movie scapegoaters’ all time hits list is a much more controversial film, Natural Born Killers, originally released in 1994, with a theatrical edition that director Oliver Stone did not feel justified his original vision. Natural Born Killers grew from a script by Quentin Tarantino that apparently changed quite a bit along the journey from typewriter to movie set. The film is about a murderous couple, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) who embark on a psychedelic killing spree, while, at the same time, captivating the attention of American media.

In terms of Natural Born Killers’ history, Stone and his movie have been linked to “copycat” killings, although the influence of the film on those events is certainly debatable, at best. Did Stone’s characters simply become safe havens for people with their own, real life, disturbed backgrounds and therefore identified more than others with Mickey and Mallory? Were people really “influenced” by the film or were they just fans? Just as I am sure there are fans of various nonviolent movies and fictional characters?

Although the film could be considered trashy art, Natural Born Killers does speak to a level of media critique akin to Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece Network, which foreshadowed the ideas expressed by Stone’s controversial film: the need for entertainment with news becomes progressively more grotesque, until spectacles are made out of real lives. Witness the, also released in 1994, now “infamous” OJ Simpson, White Bronco, slow speed chase. And those of us who do remember and did witness it live, on CNN, we were there at the beginning. While Natural Born Killers is almost twenty years old, the movie remains relevant as commentary, most powerfully concerning the media’s handling of horrific events.

With this being said, the name-dropping of Stone’s film also backfires here, as Natural Born Killers is actually in direct agreement with what media scapegoaters argue regarding the “wall-to-wall attention or sense of identity” paid by media to those who commit atrocities, precisely as happens with Mickey and Mallory in the movie. Though Stone gives his opinion on the subject through highly stylized, gory violence, holding up Natural Born Killers as an example of “what is wrong with our society” simply demonstrates that it is not just one side of this “debate” that is on board with the media toning down its coverage of such events. Natural Born Killers is an argument for the fact that, at least as far as Oliver Stone is concerned, Hollywood agrees with the media scapegoaters, well as far as popular media’s obsessive coverage of horrifically violent events. However, many before have taken the wrong message from Natural Born Killers. The movie is misinterpreted repeatedly and unfortunately seen only on a very shallow, surface level. 

Lumping American Psycho and Natural Born Killers together within the definition of “pornography” is to miss the point of why these films were even made. These two movies especially were not created to reach out to viewers through a spectacle of violence; unlike actual porn that is made to affect the direct stimulation of hormones. American Psycho and Natural Born Killers may be violent, but that violence does not rob the art of its ability to make a meaningful statement. The carnage in these films, however much it provides a visual of horror through extreme violence and harm to human beings, is meant to foster necessary discussions among viewers, especially mature viewers, about difficult subjects, such as what creates a “disturbed” individual. At the same time, with its focus on American psychos and natural born killers, these movies DO provide different analyses of the horrifying phenomena that the media scapegoaters are dismally attempting to foist directly off onto the “violent” media.

To understand why blaming “violent media” for real life, actual violence (especially gun violence) is essentially a ridiculous argument, one need only look at the situation of countries outside the United States. To assist in doing so, I will be referring to a recent data from the United Nations organized in a Washington Post chart titled, “The U.S. has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.” Citizens of other developed countries, those that belong to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, like the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, take in much of the same media as Americans. Natural Born Killers is being watched by apparently equally vulnerable and impressionable youth in other countries. Let’s not forget that these countries are also producing their own violent films and video games. Still, these countries have much lower gun-related homicides per capita than the United States. Compared to these other countries, the American murder rate with guns is twenty times above their average.

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In the New Yorker, humorist Andy Borowitz dealt a fine hand with a satirical article entitled, “N.R.A Proposes Sweeping Ban on Movies,” which laid the question out flatly: Exactly how many people have been murdered by movies themselves? And how many have lost their lives due to guns? Especially guns that look more fitting for an action movie than someone’s personal collection? The fact remains that just as millions of people have watched Natural Born Killers or any number of other movies like it and/or depicting as much or more violence; a movie is not a weapon. To then encourage the control of such expressions throughout entertainment or to say that this challenging media should be completely disregarded, scapegoated and not understood, is simply counterproductive.

Especially in an entertainment industry that seems to release movies containing violence and/or some amount of blood every week; with the face of movie superstar The Gun receiving more screen time than any human actor or actress, it is important to fully understand the lack of effect that violent media has in the larger scheme of things. Most of all, it is necessary to see that blaming movies like Natural Born Killers, American Psycho or anything that sounds or looks like these movies, is a dangerously useless distraction from the true problems at hand and subsequently, the actual solutions to the real horror in front of us.