Natural Born Killers: disorders portrayed in film

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An essay I wrote for my abnormal psychology class (04/25/03)

This paper is an examination of the controversial film, Natural Born killers directed by Oliver Stone. The film depicts specific psychological disorders through the role of its main characters.

Oliver Stone presents a satiric view on America’s obsession with tabloid criminality, starring Woody Harrelson as Mickey Knox and Juliette Lewis as his girlfriend/wife Mallory Wilson. This serial killer couple commences their slide into a downward spiral of extreme violence with the murder of Mallory’s sexually abusive father and her negligent mother. The couple then begins a remorseless killing spree across the highways of America.

The couple’s fame spreads across the media, making them instant celebrities. By the time they’re finally arrested, they’ve become pop celebrity icons in the eyes of the American public. Their final escape from the state prison within a phenomenal riot captures the movie’s violent intensity at its best, with live filming of the event taking place within the film itself. The media’s perpetuation of violence is a major theme with this film, along with an examination of serial killers in general and the impact of social influences in forming disorders.

Oliver stone outlines their personalities as a form of antisocial personality disorder, developing over time as a result of various social pressures.

The diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder consists of four specific criteria. The first observable symptom recognized in the DSM IV is, ‘a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years’ which has several subcategories such as failure to conform to social norms, deceitfulness, impulsivity, aggressiveness, reckless disregard for safety of self or others and lack of remorse; all of which are clearly demonstrated by the characters in the film.

Other criteria for anti-social personality disorder exhibited in Natural Born Killers include the necessary age range of the couple and evidence of conduct disorder at an early age.

The first symptomatic behavior of antisocial personality disorder is of failing to conform to the norms set by society leading to acts which may result in arrest are exhibited by the couple in their unwilling nature; most clearly visible in their interactions with authority such as the police. When faced with arrest, the couple broke out into a gunfight in an outnumbered situation. Similarly, in prison, both Mickey and Mallory refused to conform to the institutions norms, with constant aggression towards prison guards (Mallory killed a guard in an attack) which eventually resulted in their presence causing a prison riot.

Deceitfulness is a common trait in both Mickey and Mallory – they both show their innate ability to lie in any situation, deceiving people in their speech and numerous false identities (which extended to fake hair and varying styles of clothes), lying in their television interviews to gain media attention and essentially leading a life which required deceit at every step in order to survive. Once again, Oliver stone is careful to balance the fact that while lying is innate in the couple’s character, they are also forced to lie constantly in order to survive in a society which has shunned them.

Impulsivity in the behavior of Mickey and Mallory is also found in abundance as seen in the opening scene where the couple enter a small town restaurant to eat breakfast and end up killing everyone inside over a small insult. Similarly, their impulsivity leads to their eventual arrest after Mickey shoots the Navajo Indian who provided them shelter in an impulsive burst, which in turn led them to being bitten and poisoned by the Indian’s snake.

Reckless behavior was a constant as the couple seemed to thrive in the moment, showing utter disregard toward personal injury or injuring others. The couple displayed a wide variety of aggressive and reckless behavior, both in their speech and actions. The film contained copious amounts of violence, mostly perpetuated by the couple. Their violent murder of Mallory’s parents (drowning the father in the fish tank and suffocating the mother with a pillow); their murderous break from the state prison they were being held in; Mallory murdering a gas attendant she initiated sex with and countless other acts of reckless, wanton aggression were depicted in the film.

The last category that was emphasized greatly within this film was lack of remorse. Apart from their bizarre love for each other, the two characters were lacking in the emotional response one would expect from normal people. They showed no remorse whatsoever in hurting and/or killing other humans. In Mickey’s own words during his interview in prison, he saw himself as ‘a natural born killer’.

All these actions indicate antisocial personality disorder as a diagnosis for Mickey and Mallory. They match every criteria required for this disorder. One could also perhaps include a certain overlapping of other mental disorders such as psychopathy in the nature of the couple’s behavior and thought patterns. According to the psychopathy checklist outlined by Hare, Mickey and Mallory displayed superficial charm (which greatly aided their media publicity), a grandiose sense of self-worth (Mickey saw his killer instinct as being a superior, natural power placing him higher in the natural order than normal humans) and a definite lack of remorse. Despite these telltale signs of mental disorder, there are a few discrepancies shown in the film.

The love the couple holds for each other is an oddity within individuals with antisocial personality disorder. The obvious physical and emotional support they derive from each other is easily seen in the deterioration in both Mickey and Mallory’s states of mind during their separation in prison. Mickey survived by writing Mallory imaginary letters in his prison cell while Mallory slipped into an intensely withdrawn/aggressive state, resulting in her being placed in solitary confinement.

Other isolated incidents suggest occasional glimpses of normalcy in the couple’s reactions. When Mickey kills their friend the Navajo Indian by mistake in a drug frenzy, both he and Mallory feel immense sorrow and frustration at the act, defining it as, ‘very, very bad’. Mickey comments on the killing later in his interview in prison and expresses sorrow at killing the Navajo Indian who gave them shelter when they were in need.

The question of how the couple’s lack of remorse exists is a matter of considerable debate in the movie. Through his televised interview in the prison, Mickey’s views on himself provide an interesting argument,

‘I’m not even the same species. I used to be you…then I evolved. From where you’re standing, you’re a man. From where I’m standing, you’re an ape…I’m here…I’m still evolving…and you, you’re stuck somewhere else.’

He believes there is a type of person born with traits which he has (including lack of remorse, a killer instinct, criminality etc.) arguing in favor of a biological understanding of his particular disorder. Through his direction, Oliver Stone presents the opposite side of this viewpoint. His examination of Mallory’s abusive and neglectful parents, flashbacks of Mickey’s alcoholic and abusive father and the influence of media violence in their lives and their consequent alienation from society, suggests that social influences are the primary cause behind their behavior.


One thought on “Natural Born Killers: disorders portrayed in film

    Fellow psychopathology student said:
    March 20, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Great thoughts but theres no evidence of conduct disorder before the age of 15 probably better to call this a rule out or provisional diagnosis…also no mention of mallory’s PTSD

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