1999, NR, 90 min. Directed by Mark Bristol. Starring David Carradine, Michael Bowen, Darren Burrows, Joe Unger, Bob Balaban.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
If only for his game effort to skewer our pop culture's wearisome infatuation with serial killers, beers are on me when I meet Natural Selection director Mark Bristol. That said, I'm not sure the actual fruit of Bristol's labors isn't as much a part of the problem as the solution. This locally shot black comedy, like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, examines the bizarre feedback loop that exists among celebrity psychopaths, the increasingly tabloidized mainstream news media, and, not least, our own bad selves, the slavering, goonish consumers for whom no meaningful line exists between entertainment and real life. To Bristol's credit, his debut feature makes its point at least as coherently as Stone did, while saving producers Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam 50 or 60 mil in the process. Unfortunately, Natural Selection shares not only a central theme with Natural Born Killers but also a major flaw: Even as it tsk-tsks our sluttish cravings for voyeuristic titillation, it indulges those very same urges with brilliantly conceived and executed images that carry far more punch than the subtler ideas the script is trying to convey. In essence, screenwriters B.J. Burrow and Allen Odom are working at cross purposes with director of photography Rhet Bear, whose fiendishly inventive conjury of classic creepo flicks by Friedkin, Craven, and Richard Donner (The Omen) is the single most impressive thing about this film. Burrow and Odom's story proceeds along two parallel tracks: A mock documentary about a serial killer named Willie (Bowen) who terrorizes a small Texas town, and the dramatized tale of Willie's pursuit by FBI agent Louis Dehoven (Carradine) and ill-humored local lawman Harry Richards (Unger). Also in the mix are Glenn (Burrows, aka Ed Chigliak from Northern Exposure), a yuppie straight-arrow unhealthily obsessed with the killer's exploits, and blowhard pop criminologist Dr. William Powell (Balaban). Carradine, tapping deeply into the oh-what-the-hell bravado many actors seem to acquire with age, is hilariously over the top as Dehoven, a borderline lunatic who psyches up for work by flagellating himself in his candlelit hotel room. But for my money the best characters are Richards and Powell, who, not coincidentally, are also the least farcical. Their inane pronouncements, delivered with the mindless confidence that seems to be our main criterion for expert credibility these days, are satirical writing at its best -- devastating precisely because so little exaggeration is needed for comic effect. Elsewhere, though, Odom and Burrow blatantly coast, tossing off Porky's III-caliber gags that shouldn't have cleared even the most perfunctory script-editing process. There's a comparable Marianas Trench drop-off between the performances of lead actors Balaban, Carradine, Unger, et. al. and much of the supporting cast. Add up the pluses and minuses and you get a fairly typical first film: plenty of nascent talent on display but too little focus and overall quality control to pass muster beyond the friendly confines of the local indie community. (See Screens section for background feature.) Playing before Natural Selection is the Austin-made, short animated work “Roadhead,” directed by Bob Sabiston and produced by Tommy Pallotta.