The film is based on an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino that was heavily revised by writer David Veloz, associate producer Richard Rutowski, and director Stone; Tarantino received story credit. Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy, and Clayton Townsend produced the film, with Arnon Milchan, Thom Mount, and Stone as executive producers.
The film was released theatrically on August 26, 1994 in the United States, February 24, 1995 and premiered on Venice Film Festival on August 29, 1994. The film was a box office success, grossing over $50 million against a production budget of $34 million, and received generally mixed to positive reviews, who praised the cast's performances, the movie's humor, plot, and combination of action and romance, but found the film much too violent and graphic. Notorious for its violent content and inspiring "copycat" crimes, the film was named the eighth most controversial film in history by Entertainment Weekly in 2006.
Mickey Knox and his wife Mallory stop at a diner in the New Mexico desert. A duo of rednecks arrive and one begins sexually harassing Mallory while she is dancing. She briefly encourages him before beating him to a pulp, screaming "How sexy am I now, huh flirty boy?". Mickey and Mallory then murder all but one of the diner's patrons, and one customer, culminating in a morbid game of Eeny, meeny, miny, moe to decide who lives and dies. After killing the waitress Mabel, the couple ensures that the only survivor remembers their names so that he can pass on the legend of Mickey and Mallory before they embrace and declare their undying love.
Mickey and Mallory camp out in the desert, and Mallory reminisces about when they first met. A flashback (done in the style of a TV sitcom, including a laughtrack) shows Mickey as a meat deliveryman who came to the house where Mallory lived with her sexually abusive father, her neglectful mother, and her younger brother, Kevin. Mickey and Mallory fall in love instantly and leave together, stealing Mallory's father's car. Soon Mickey is arrested and imprisoned for auto theft, but he subsequently escapes from a prison work farm during a tornado and returns to Mallory's house. The two kill Mallory's parents, but spare Kevin. Mallory's father is beaten and then drowned in the fish tank while her mother is tied to her bed and set on fire. Mickey and Mallory then go on the road together and get "married" on the side of a bridge, celebrating by taking a hostage. Furious with Mickey's notion that they have a threesome, Mallory drives to a nearby gas station, where she flirts with the mechanic. They begin to have sex on the hood of a car, but Mallory kills him when he recognizes her as a wanted killer. During this time, Mickey rapes the hostage.
The pair continue their killing spree, ultimately claiming fifty-two victims in New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. Pursuing them is Detective Jack Scagnetti, who became obsessed with mass murderers after witnessing his mother being shot and killed by Charles Whitman when he was eight. Beneath his heroic facade, he is a violent psychopath. The audience witnesses Scagnetti violently strangle a prostitute to death. The killers are also followed by self-serving tabloid journalist Wayne Gale. Gale profiles Mickey and Mallory on his show, American Maniacs, soon elevating them to cult hero status.
Mickey and Mallory get lost in the desert after taking psychedelic mushrooms. They come across a ranch where they encounter Warren Red Cloud, a Navajo Indian, and his young grandson. The Navajo provides them with food and shelter. After the two fall asleep, the Navajo, hoping to expel the demon he perceives in Mickey, begins chanting beside the fire. This invokes nightmares in Mickey about his abusive parents. Mickey wakes up in a panicked rage and fatally shoots Red Cloud before he realizes what he is doing. Mallory wakes up to the sound of the gunshot and starts screaming at Mickey for killing the man who sheltered them. This is the first time Mallory and Mickey feel guilty for a murder. Fleeing from the scene, they step outside of the house and come across a field of rattlesnakes. Mallory does not see the snakes and gets bitten first. Mickey lights a stick on fire to expose the snakes. While he is trying to help Mallory he also gets bitten.
They drive to a drugstore to find snakebite antidote, however the store is completely sold out. Mallory falls to the ground while Mickey runs to the pharmacy with the hopes that there will be more medication in stock. The pharmacist recognizes Mickey from the news report and sets off the silent alarm before Mickey kills him. Soon police cars arrive and Mallory is captured and subsequently beaten by the police. A gunfight breaks out between Mickey and the others while Mallory is held hostage. Scagnetti arrives and tells Mickey that unless he surrenders, he will cut off Mallory's breasts. Mickey gives up his guns, but attacks Scagnetti with a knife. The police taser him and the scene ends with Mickey and Mallory being beaten by a group of vengeful policemen as a Japanese news crew fronted by a female reporter films the action.
The story picks up one year later: the homicidal couple have been imprisoned, and are due to be moved to a mental hospital after being declared insane. Mickey and Mallory have now gone one year without seeing each other. Scagnetti arrives at the prison and encounters Warden Dwight McClusky, with whom he plans to murder the two criminals. McClusky will arrange for Scagnetti to be the driver for the Knoxes' transfer. Alone with the pair, Scagnetti will murder them, then claim that they tried to escape.
Meanwhile, Gale has persuaded Mickey to agree to a live interview that will air immediately after the Super Bowl. Mallory is held in solitary confinement elsewhere in the prison, awaiting her transport to the mental hospital. During the interview, Mickey gives a speech about how murder provides enlightenment and declares himself a "natural born killer". His words inspire the other inmates (who are watching the interview on TV in the recreation room) and incite them to riot.
McClusky, upon learning of the riot, orders the interview terminated despite Gale's vehement protests. Mickey is left alone with Gale, the film crew and several guards. Using a lengthy joke as a diversion, Mickey overpowers a guard and grabs his shotgun. He kills most of the guards with it and takes the survivors hostage, leading them through the prison riot. Gale follows, giving a live television report as people are beaten and killed around him.
While this riot is unfolding, Scagnetti enters Mallory's cell and attempts to seduce her. Mallory, feigning to reciprocate at first, rebuffs his efforts, smashing his face against the wall and breaking his nose. The two guards outside the cell struggle to enter while Mallory attacks Scagnetti. Finally, the two guards subdue her, and Scagnetti sprays her face with tear gas in revenge. Still live on national television, Mickey arrives at Mallory's cell, where he kills all the guards and engages in a Mexican standoff with Scagnetti, eventually feigning a concession. Mallory then approaches Scagnetti from behind and slashes his throat with a shank. To Scagnetti's horror, Mickey tells him that he was out of shotgun shells during the standoff. Mallory then picks up Scagnetti's gun, saying "You still like me now, Jack?" and kills him.
Mickey and Mallory continue to escape through the riot torn prison, with Gale's entire TV crew getting killed. Gale himself snaps, succumbing to Stockholm syndrome as well as indulging in his own longtime fascination for murder, and begins to shoot at the guards with a pistol that he has taken from one of the dead guards, but gets so frenzied that Mickey prefers to disarm him. After being rescued by a mysterious prisoner named Owen Traft, the trio of Mickey, Mallory, and Gale run into McClusky and a heavily armed posse of guards. The trio takes cover in a blood-splattered shower room. McClusky threatens to storm the shower room; Mickey, in turn, threatens to kill both Gale and a guard on live TV, and the prisoners walk out the front door, to McClusky's utter dismay, as he helplessly threatens to hunt them down. McClusky and his guards are then quickly massacred by hordes of inmates.
Mickey and Mallory steal a van and kill the last guard; Owen's fate is unknown. Escaping to a rural location, they give a final interview to Gale, whose ear they have seemingly removed (implied, but as a camera track reveals), before they tell him he must die also. He attempts various arguments to change their minds, finally appealing to their trademark practice of leaving one survivor; Mickey informs him they are leaving a witness to tell the tale, his camera. Gale accepts his fate and extends his arms as if on a cross as they shoot him dead while his unattended camera continues to roll. The couple is shown several years later, in an RV, with Mickey driving and a pregnant Mallory watching their two children play.
Natural Born Killers was based upon a screenplay written by Quentin Tarantino, in which a married couple suddenly decide to go on a killing spree. Tarantino had sold an option for his script to producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy for $10,000 after he had tried, and failed, to direct it himself for $500,000. Hamsher and Murphy subsequently sold the screenplay to Warner Bros. Around the same time, Oliver Stone was made aware of the script. He was keen to find something more straightforward than his previous production, Heaven & Earth; a difficult shoot which had left him exhausted, and he felt that Natural Born Killers could be what he was looking for.
David Veloz, associate producer Richard Rutowski, and Stone rewrote the script, keeping much of the dialogue but changing the focus of the film from journalist Wayne Gale to Mickey and Mallory. The script was changed so much that as per WGA rules, Tarantino was credited for the film's story only. In a 1993 interview, Tarantino stated that he did not hold any animosity towards Stone, and that he wished the film well;
"It's not going to be my movie, it's going to be Oliver Stone's, and God bless him. I hope he does a good job with it. If I wasn't emotionally attached to it, I'm sure I would find it very interesting. If you like my stuff, you might not like this movie. But if you like his stuff, you're probably going to love it. It might be the best thing he's ever done, but not because of anything to do with me. [...] I actually can't wait to see it, to tell you the truth."
Initially, when producers Hamsher and Murphy had first brought the script to Stone's attention, he had seen it as an action film; "something Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of." As the project developed however, incidents such as the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez brothers case, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident, the Rodney King incident, and the Federal assault of the Branch Davidian sect all took place. Stone came to feel that the media was heavily involved in the outcome of all of these cases, and that the media had become an all-pervasive entity which marketed violence and suffering for the good of ratings. As such, he changed the tone of the movie from one of simple action to a satirical critique of the media in general. Also coloring Stone's approach, and contributing to the violent nature of the film, were the anger and sadness he felt at the breakdown of his second marriage. He also said in an interview that the film was influenced by the "vitality" of Indian cinema. He let Rodney Dangerfield write or rewrite all of his own character's lines.
During pre-production, to prepare for the role of Wayne Gale, Downey spent time with Australian TV shock-king Steve Dunleavy, and later convinced Stone to allow him to portray Gale with an Australian accent. Also during pre-production, Stone tried to convince actress Juliette Lewis to bulk up for the role of Mallory so that she looked tougher, but she refused, saying she wanted the character to look like a pushover, not a bodybuilder.
Principal photography took only 56 days to shoot, but the editing process went on for 11 months, with the final film containing almost 3,000 cuts (most films have 600–700). Filming locations included the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge just west of Taos, New Mexico, where the wedding scene was filmed, and Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, where the prison riot was filmed. In Stateville, 80% of the prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes. For the first two weeks on location at the prison, the extras were actual inmates with rubber weapons. For the subsequent two weeks, 200 extras were needed because the Stateville inmates were on lockdown. According to Tom Sizemore, during filming on the prison set, Stone would play African tribal music at full blast between takes to keep the frantic energy up. Whilst shooting the POV scene wherein Mallory runs into the wire mesh, director of photography Robert Richardson broke his finger and the replacement cameraman cut his eye. According to Oliver Stone, he wasn’t too popular with the camera department on set that day. For the scenes involving rear projection, the projected footage was shot prior to principal photography, then edited together, and projected onto the stage, behind the live actors. For example, when Mallory drives past a building and flames are projected onto the wall, this was shot live using footage projected onto the facade of a real building.
The famous Coca-Cola polar bear ad is seen twice during the film. According to Stone, Coca-Cola approved the use of the ad without having a full idea of what the film was about. When they saw the completed film, they were furious.
The film's soundtrack was produced by Stone and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who reportedly watched the film over 50 times to "get in the mood". Reznor reportedly produced the soundtrack while on tour. On his approach to compiling the soundtrack, Reznor told MTV:
I suggested to Oliver [Stone] to try to turn the soundtrack into a collage-of-sound, kind of the way the movie used music: make edits, add dialog, and make it something interesting, rather than a bunch of previously released music.
Some songs were written especially for the film or soundtrack, such as "Burn" by Nine Inch Nails.
Natural Born Killers is shot and edited in a frenzied and psychedelic style consisting of black and white, animation, and other unusual color schemes, and employing a wide range of camera angles, filters, film stocks, lenses, and special effects. Much of the film is told via parodies of television shows, including a scene (I Love Mallory) presented in the style of a sitcom about a dysfunctional family. Commercials which were commonly on the air at the time of the film's release make brief, intermittent appearances. In his DVD director's commentary, Stone goes into great detail about the look of the film, explaining scene by scene why a particular look was chosen for a particular scene.
According to Hollywood.com, Natural Born Killers is a satirical crime film, while Foster Hirsch deemed it "the crime film as would-be social and cultural satire". Stone considered it his road film, specifically naming Bonnie and Clyde as a source of inspiration. The famous death scene in Bonnie and Clyde used innovative editing techniques provided by multiple cameras shot from different angles at different speeds; this sporadic interchange between fast-paced and slow-motion editing that concludes Arthur Penn's film is used throughout the entirety of Natural Born Killers.
Furthermore, both films fall under the road film genre through their constant challenges of the society in which the characters live. While Bonnie and Clyde attempt to disintegrate the weakened economic and social landscape of the 1930s, Mickey and Mallory try to free America from the overarching conventions which influence the common masses, primarily the media. However, whilst Bonnie and Clyde concludes with a pessimistic outlook regarding individual freedom within the American sphere of influence, Oliver Stone sees Natural Born Killers as having an optimistic finale. In Bonnie and Clyde, the police's ambush of the couple exhibits the empirical control of law enforcement over the individual. Natural Born Killers, however, ends with the couple symbolically destroying the mass media, as represented by Wayne Gale, and successfully fleeing together to live a relatively "normal" life. As Stone himself says, "In its own way, Natural Born Killers is ultimately a very optimistic film about the future. It's about freedom, and the ability of every human being to get it."
In its opening weekend, Natural Born Killers grossed a total of $11,166,687 in 1,510 theaters. As of January 12, 2007, the film had grossed a total of $50,282,766 domestically, compared to its $34 million budget.
The film received a mixed critical response. As of April 7, 2015, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes records an average response of 46%, based on 35 reviews. However, Metacritic records a score of 74 out of 100 based on 20 reviews. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars out of four and wrote, "Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning." On his television show, his partner Gene Siskel agreed with him, adding extra praise to the scene featuring Rodney Dangerfield.
Other critics found the film unsuccessful in its aims. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post claimed that "Stone's sensibility is white-hot and personal. As much as he'd like us to believe that his camera is turned outward on the culture, it's vividly clear that he can't resist turning it inward on himself. This wouldn't be so troublesome if Stone didn't confuse the public and the private." Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, "for all its surface passions, Natural Born Killers never digs deep enough to touch the madness of such events, or even to send them up in any surprising way. Mr. Stone's vision is impassioned, alarming, visually inventive, characteristically overpowering. But it's no match for the awful truth."
James Berardinelli gave the film a negative review but his criticism was different from many other such pans, which generally said that Oliver Stone was a hypocrite for making an ultra-violent film in the guise of a critique of American attitudes. Berardinelli noted that the movie "hits the bullseye" as a satire of America's lust for bloodshed, but repeated Stone's main point so often and so loudly that it became unbearable.
Lionsgate Films released a director's cut on DVD. Stone himself retained ownership of his preferred cut. Distribution rights to the director's cut reverted from Lionsgate to Warner Bros. in 2009, giving Warner all distribution rights.
When the film was first handed in to the MPAA, they told Stone they would give it an NC-17 unless he cut it. As such, Stone toned down the violence by cutting approximately four minutes of footage, and the MPAA re-rated the film as an R. In 1996, a Director's Cut was released on home video by Vidmark Entertainment and Pioneer Entertainment, as Warner Bros. wanted nothing to do with that particular version. Warner Home Video later released this cut on Blu-ray.
The film was banned completely upon release in Ireland, including – controversially – from cinema clubs, in significant part because the principal characters have Irish names. The ban was later quietly lifted.
In the UK, though the cinema release was delayed while the BBFC investigated reports that the film caused copycat murders in the USA and France, it was finally shown in cinemas in February 1995.
The original intended UK home video release in March 1996 was cancelled due to the Dunblane massacre in Scotland. In the meantime, Channel Five showed the film in November 1997. It was finally released on video in July 2001.
Entertainment Weekly ranked the film as the eighth most controversial film ever.
From almost the moment of its release, the film has been accused of encouraging and inspiring numerous murderers in North America, including the Heath High School shooting and the Columbine High School massacre.
The soundtrack was released August 23, 1994 by Interscope Records.
Tracks 10, 13, 18, 20, 23, and 25 are assembled from various recordings and dialogue from the film.