"Natural Born Killers" (1994)
Few movies in the nineties were as controversial as "Natural Born Killers," Oliver Stone's kaleidoscopic, blood-soaked road movie about a pair of lovestruck serial killers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), which was at least partially based on an old Quentin Tarantino screenplay (he publicly distanced himself from the movie after Stone changed it enough to make it his own). As visually striking as anything the filmmaker has done, "Natural Born Killers" was a lovers-on-the-run movie that also served as a barbed satire of the nineties media obsession with all things evil. This was a period in American history when high-profile criminal cases captured the nation's imagination and serial killer trading cards were printed and traded by young kids (aw, I already have Dahmer) and Stone wanted to skewer it all in the most wildly over-the-top, orgiastic way possible. And so every frame of the movie is over-cranked, highly processed, or multimedia—sequences shift from black and white to garish animation and back again without any warning or context. To Stone, the passion of the two lovers on the run and the appetite of the American public to make them into rock stars was equally depraved, with one feeding the other. The amount of media outrage that accompanied this movie was just as shocking as in the actual movie, with whole sequences removed from the theatrical edition (including one where Tommy Lee Jones, who plays a villainous prison warden, had his head chopped off and put on a stick) to secure an R-rating, and outspoken protests mounted from coast to coast (later, a number of "copycat crimes" would be blamed on the movie). The gonzo kitchen-sink approach Stone takes to evoking the 'Killers'' private world is admirably bizarre and retains its power to jolt to this day, but its overheated, over-hyped freneticism doesn't have much substance or emotive impact underneath its psychedelic trappings. It should be noted, though, that it's divisive to the last, with this being one entry that the usually harmonious Playlist Borg Hive Mind cannot agree on a grade for, ranging from [D+] to [A] (insanity). So we'll even it out at a [B-]
“The Getaway” (1972)/"The Getaway" (1994)
Based on a novel by the poet laureate of hard pulp Jim Thompson, whose script was rewritten by the titan of cinematic masculinity Walter Hill, directed by feminist favorite Sam Peckinpah, and starring a Steve McQueen firmly in the midst of a cocaine-soaked marriage breakdown, "The Getaway" rises out of a dense fog of testosterone: it doesn't get any more boys-night-in than this. Ali McGraw (somewhat miscast, to occasionally charming effect) uses her wiles to free husband "Doc" McCoy (McQueen) from prison. After a botched bank robbery, the bickering pair go on the run with the loot, pursued by cannon-fodder cops and a variety of goons, lead by the astonishingly repellent and malevolent Rudy (Al Letteria). Perhaps inevitably, it all culminates in a bloodbath in El Paso, and a tender reconciliation for the by-then real-life lovers, but not before their picaresque journey has seen them both rack up quite a body count, get dumped in a landfill by a garbage truck, and be double crossed by nearly everyone along the way, even some complete strangers. This is by no means top-tier Peckinpah; both he and McQueen were desperate for a no-nonsense hit after the commercial failure of "Junior Bonner" (1972), and aside from an impressively evocative opening when Doc is still in prison, this is mostly a straight-up action/heist film. But it’s a genre film with pedigree and all the staples are there—stunningly edited montages, patented slo-mo bullet ballets and a blank disregard for the lives of minor characters (witness to poor sap dentist who hangs himself in shame over his wife’s flagrant affair with Rudy). And as vacuous a presence as we often find McGraw, there’s no doubt that she and McQueen at least physically suit the gritty anti-glamor of the cinematography and run-down locations. Possibly not Robert Evans' favorite film though… [B]
Take away whatever sheen of auteur vision Peckinpah’s version has, and amp up the trashy, pulpy aspects to lurid mid-90s effect and you get the 1994 remake, starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. It’s not nearly as good—what little was not made explicit in 1972’s version is laid thuddingly bare here—but that’s not to say you can’t derive quite some guilty pleasure from its excesses. [C]
“Boxcar Bertha” (1972)
As he did with so many young talents, Roger Corman gave Martin Scorsese one of his first big breaks with the opportunity to direct the exploitation flick "Boxcar Bertha" as his second feature (his first was "Who's That Knocking On My Door") for Corman's company American Independent Pictures in 1972. Starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as a young couple lovin' and robbin' on the road with their badass gang, the film took advantage of two 1970s New Hollywood tropes: nostalgia (the film is set in the 1930s) and exploitation (nubile Hershey is frequently nude, probably per Corman's standards and practices). No doubt capitalizing on the "Bonnie and Clyde" success of 5 years prior, "Boxcar Bertha" is a film that pushes the boundaries of that already boundary-pushing film, upping the sex, violence and gore that 1970s audiences expected, despite the period setting. The sexiness of 'Bertha' was even captured in a fully-nude Playboy spread featuring real-life lovers Hershey and Carradine (it seems only appropriate that another Carradine appears in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" to keep up the tradition). But for all the exploitation-y goodness of 'Bertha,' the film is quite artfully made, despite the time and budget restraints, and showcases the kinetic and dynamic style that Scorsese would come to be known for, as well as his willingness to probe the darkest wells of human nature. Hershey and Carradine are riveting, as well as perennial favorite Bernie Casey (of "Revenge of the Nerds") representing the racial tension of the time. A quintessential and often overlooked example in the Lovers on the Run genre. [B+]
"The Honeymoon Killers" (1969)
There's a kind of freak-show fascination that holds you in its dark embrace while watching "The Honeymoon Killers," a movie that had at least three directors attached throughout various points of the production (including Martin Scorsese, who was fired for working too slow; some of his scenes can still be seen in the movie). The movie stars Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, in a story based on the infamous "lonely hearts killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who were convicted of killing several people and suspected of murdering at least a dozen more (retold in 1996's Mexican film "Deep Crimson"). Shot in a grimy, low-rent kind of black-and-white that suggests both newsreel footage and pulpy film noirs, "The Honeymoon Killers" is wonderfully lurid, to an almost sickening degree. A lot of this has to do with the cheap-ass filmmaking but just as much of it can be attributed to the two lead performances, which are somehow both deliciously over-the-top and frighteningly real. Stoler and Lo Bianco have a low-rent energy that suggests how in love they are and how potentially psychotic they could become. There is something decidedly "off" about them, which enriches the movie with a gritty realism that might have been missing had more accomplished, manicured actors taken the roles. While the movie has obtained a degree of cult movie notoriety over the years, it still remains something of a curio, and one that not everyone is capable of watching. Even though their love story is oddly moving, it's still a tough watch, the kind of thing that makes you want to take a shower after you're done watching it. Maybe with someone you really, really love. [B]
"Wild At Heart" (1990)
In "Wild at Heart," Sailor (Nicolas Cage) wears a snakeskin jacket which, in his words, represents a "symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom" and Lulu (Laura Dern) is the kind of woman whose sexuality radiates off the screen; you want to run away with her, no matter the consequences. David Lynch's lovely, bizarre riff on the lovers-on-the-run genre, which Lynch worked on after he finished the pilot for his acclaimed series "Twin Peaks," turned a few heads (and stomachs) when it was initially released. This is one of those "booed at Cannes" movies where you can almost understand the response, especially in the sequence where Lula and Sailor kiss over the smoldering neck wound of someone they had just decapitated with a shotgun blast. But this is a no-holds-barred outlaw movie in all of its parole-breaking glory, featuring two characters who are on the run from the law and a host of underworld baddies (most memorably Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru). There are a number of unforgettable, incredibly weird flourishes that act like the inside jokes that a close couple shares: the Elvis Presley songs, the overt "Wizard of Oz" allusions, and the oftentimes uncomfortable marriage of sex and violence. This is a movie where Crispin Glover puts live cockroaches in his underwear and Diane Ladd, Dern's real-life mother, appears in stark close-up, smearing lipstick all over her face (she was Oscar-nominated here). "Wild at Heart" is wonderfully picaresque, darkly funny and totally unique, and so is just as powerful as any other Lynch masterwork, amongst whose number it can comfortably be counted. [A-]
Proof positive that the genre is nearly as old as the medium and spans continents and styles, Swedish pioneer Victor Sjöström made silent film "The Outlaw and his Wife" back in 1918, which tells the story of an 18th Century Icelandic outlaw who falls in love with the landowning widow he works for, and who, on being found out, takes to the hills with her. All sorts of melodrama ensues as they have a child (whom she tosses over a cliff to evade bandits!), get involved in a love triangle and eventually freeze to death in each other's arms (Intertitle: "Their Love was their only law"). Unfortunately the dreadful quality of our copy doesn't do justice to what was, at the time, called "the most beautiful film in the world."
Elsewhere there were many titles we couldn't get to for space/time reasons. There seems to have been a worldwide glut in the early-to-mid '90s—Kelly Reichardt's debut "River of Grass" is a Jarmusch-indebted loose-limbed film from 1994 that is more promising than truly impressive, while Gregg Araki's "The Living End" (1992) is a gay take on the theme in which an odd couple, both HIV positive, take off after killing a cop. Widely considered a founding film of New Queer cinema, it casts the grim circumstances almost as a nihilistic comedy to the frequent refrain "Fuck the world," and Araki would revisit the genre, again in kitschy, gonzo style, a few years later with "The Doom Generation" (subtitled "A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki") starring Rose McGowan. Michael Winterbottom's 1995 "Butterfly Kiss" worked a lesbian/bisexual angle, while less controversial (depending on how you feel about Renee Zellweger) was 1994's "Love and a.45," another set-in-Texas-heading-for-the-border go-round. Drew Barrymore also worked out her late-teen troubles in not one but two lovers-on-the-run films: 1992's "Guncrazy" and 1995's "Mad Love," neither of which are much cop.
1940’s “Contraband” might be a film by the venerable duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but Conrad Veidt (normally a villain) can’t really cut it as a leading man and the movie is kind of sawdust dry (though our Powell & Pressburger retrospective puts forth a different opinion), while Godard wasn't the only Nouvelle Vague-er to embrace the genre: Francois Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid" also stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, along with Catherine Deneuve, and, like "Pierrot le Fou," at least part of it details the stresses that life on the run can put on a love affair, usually as a result of the woman becoming restless and longing for a more luxurious lifestyle. And two more recent, skewed visions that loosely fit the paradigm of a couple pursued by the authorities are Ben Wheatley's brilliantly dark "Sightseers" and Wes Anderson's adorable "Moonrise Kingdom," but we've written about both ad nauseam recently elsewhere.
We also tried to avoid films that may feature a love-on-the-run subplot, but are mostly classified as something else, like sci-fi, in the case of downbeat-but-fascinating "Code 46" and the glossy-but-uninteresting "The Island," or heist film, in the case of the Goldie Hawn and Warren Beatty-starring "Dollars." Also 1974's "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" has some of the right elements, but is really just one long car chase, and as exactly as awesome/wearying as that sounds. Francois Ozon's "Criminal Lovers" also fits in here, as, despite a fleeing-from-police ending it's more a dark, psycho-sexual thriller along the way, and despite our best efforts we just didn't manage to track down two interesting-sounding Japanese entries in time: 1999's "Adrenaline Drive" and the fantastically Japanese-ified title "Jeans Blues: No Future" from 1974. 1996's Keanu Reeves/Cameron Diaz turkey "Feeling Minnesota," however, doesn't appear on the main list because we simply couldn't induce anyone to write about it. Weigh in on any of our inclusions or exclusions or OMG HOW COULD YOU FORGET X oversights below. - Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Drew Taylor, Mark Zhuravsky, and Katie Walsh.