In describing the process of film making, critics invariably draw upon images of violent altercations: the camera “shoots” like a gun and the director ends the “shot” with a “cut” like a knife. The camera plays the roll of the weapon in this simile, implying that it functions as a tool for controlling that which it captures with its lens. With these analogies in mind, it should come as no surprise that Natural Born Killers (1994), a film that satirizes the media’s role in perpetuating violence, makes these connections explicit in its form and content. Through cinematography and mise-en-scene, Natural Born Killers aligns the camera with weaponry and hence film making with violence.
The cinematography of Natural Born Killers uses framing to associate the camera with weaponry. The most obvious example of such framing occurs in the opening sequence in which protagonists Mallory (Juliet Lewis) and Mickey (Woody Harrelson) kill several workers and patrons at a roadside café. In one killing, the film uses mobile framing to follow the trajectory of a bullet toward a victim:
A similar following shot occurs when Mickey throws a knife at a bystander outside the café. Finally, several shots position the camera behind the gun itself. In all cases the camera trails the weapon, mimicking its movement. The film’s regular use of steadicam and hand-held cameras similarly plays on the idea of the camera as weaponry in that such mobile framing draws attention to the camera as attached to the body of the camera’s operator like a weapon wielded for battle.
This equation also occurs through the use of the camera in the mise-en-scene, particularly in the riot sequence in the final quarter of the film. These scenes depict a television personality Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) documenting a prison uprising that enables the escape of Mickey and Mallory. In one instance, Mickey breaks into Mallory’s cell with Wayne Gale and crew in tow to face off against Detective John Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). With each man pointing a gun at the other, Mickey describes the situation as a “Mexican standoff”; while a Mexican standoff can occur between two parties, the classic examples tend to have three participants, as is the case in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
In the case of Natural Born Killers, the camera represents the third weapon brandished in the standoff and even appears in the frame being pointed in a similar manner as the guns of Mickey and Scagnetti. Other shots during the scene position the camera right next to the gun with the gun barrel and the camera lens visually and thus metaphorically paralleled.
Lastly, Mickey literally replaces Gale’s gun for a camera as they try to escape, suggesting the two to be interchangeable. All combined, these moments suggest that the camera functions as a weapon during the riot.
These uses of the camera both through cinematography and the mise-en-scene reinforce Natural Born Killers’ indictment of mass media for perpetuating violence in contemporary society. Furthermore, these alignments raise ontological questions about the nature of the camera as an apparatus for capturing the moving image. One must ask, however, whether or not this message can be sustained through the very media it claims to critique and if any film can ever succeed in such aims.