Issues of Media in Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers
The 1967 crime film Bonnie and Clyde, based on the real-life exploits of criminal couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, is believed to have influenced Oliver Stone’s controversial 1994 social commentary piece Natural Born Killers. How are these two films similar? At a fundamental level, both movies are about romantically involved criminal duos who commit atrocities for their personal gain. Upon closer inspection, both films contain commentary on the far-reaching influence of news media. Natural Born Killers is known for its statements about the media and its problematic impact, but Bonnie and Clyde features similar, more subtle commentary on the issue.
During one scene in Bonnie and Clyde, a witness to a Barrow Gang crime states that the criminals helped him. He gives a statement to the police about how he supports the criminals. This style of testimony and support is underplayed in Bonnie and Clyde, but it is seen over and over again in Natural Born Killers. In the film, we see crowds of fans gathered to show their adoration of Mickey and Mallory Knox, the film’s husband-and-wife team. The media features this public support, and the public support, in turn, fuels the Knox duo to continue their actions. Both of these films show that any kind of encouragement of crime, public or private, serves as a form of justification for criminals. Of course, Natural Born Killers displays this on a wider scale. It is strange that so many people support Mickey and Mallory Knox, given their violent, sociopathic behavior. We can assume that people might side with criminals because doing so is “in style.” After this begins, the media latches onto it and covers the criminal activity more often in order to pander to a crime-obsessed audience.
Near the end of Bonnie and Clyde, the couple submits a poem about themselves to the local newspapers. Clyde is especially excited about the poem being published, because now his legacy as a criminal will be immortalized. Furthermore, this is a legacy that glorifies Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as being brave and daring. The fact that the newspapers publish this poem shows that the media has played a big role in the couple standing the test of time as historical figures. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory Knox lead a riot and eventually escape from a high-security prison, all the while knowing it will be a televised event. Mickey and Mallory are also aware of the power of media, which is why they are so insistent that people follow them through the prison with cameras. They know that having a visual record of their violent actions will propel them to further fame, increase their fan base, and allow them to get away with even more crimes. If they increase the amount of respect they have as public figures, this will lead to lenience on crime and a higher level of violence in the world. Both film couples use the media to their advantage because they know it will cause more chaos.
Stylistically, Natural Born Killers is a unique film. Almost every scene is shot with a frantic montage style, disorienting the viewers and assaulting them with fast-paced, energetic images. We can tie this assault of images to the far-reaching, intrusive presence of the media in contemporary culture. This style harkens back to the frantic final seconds of Bonnie and Clyde. This film style only lasts during one scene in Bonnie and Clyde, and we know that the media did not reach as many people in the Great Depression, when the film is set. The montage style is constant throughout Natural Born Killers because the presence of media is inescapable in contemporary times. The media, as evidenced by this film technique, dominates people’s lives today in a way that it did not at the beginning of the 20th century. This is why the idea of media itself figures much more heavily into the action of the recent Natural Born Killers than the classic Bonnie and Clyde.
These two films differ significantly in how much they emphasize the influence of news media. But, it is clear that directors Arthur Penn and Oliver Stone both recognize how powerful the media is, as well as how much that power has grown in society over the years.
Penn, Arthur. Bonnie and Clyde. Warner Brothers, 1967. Film.
Stone, Oliver. Natural Born Killers. Warner Brothers, 1994. Film.
(Image courtesy of http://screencrush.com/natural-born-killers-then-and-now/)