To Die For (United States, 1995)
Following the disastrous Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (my selection for the worst film of 1994), it's a safe bet that Gus Van Sant's next move had to be a proverbial "step in the right direction." In fact, with the biting satire To Die For, the director has made a significant move towards regaining his reputation. This movie is no masterpiece, but it is an electric, colorful production that roasts the media and those obsessed by it over an open flame. It also does a far better job than Oliver Stone's bloated Natural Born Killers at satirizing the American public's unending fascination with the televised glamor of crime.
Told in an effectively disorganized fashion that jumps back and forth in time and includes pseudo-interviews and pieces of "actual" story, To Die For gradually unravels the tale of TV weatherperson Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), who gains national notoriety as the result of a murder conspiracy rap that she beats. Her face and story are everywhere -- Donahue, USA Today, and smaller talk shows across the country. For someone with Suzanne's vapid philosophy that "You're not anyone in America unless you're on TV," this is paradise.
More than a year before the end of the film (which is also the beginning), Suzanne is a single young woman in the town of Little Hope, New Hampshire. She has the looks, but not much intelligence to go with them. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), she catches the eye of local hunk Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), an all-around nice guy and the son of a reputed mobster. Larry falls head-over-heels, and there are soon nuptials, with Suzanne wearing an exact replica of Maria Shriver's wedding veil. Not long after that, Larry has been transformed from "Van Halen to Jerry Vale" and is beginning to bore Suzanne with his desire to become a father, especially now that her career is taking off with a daily job as the weathergirl at a local cable station.
Van Sant, whose previous efforts include Drug Store Cowboy and My Private Idaho, is not an accomplished satirist, but his screenwriter, Buck Henry (adapting from a book by Joyce Maynard), is. The humor in this film is more often intellectually tantalizing than laugh-aloud funny. Suzanne is the embodiment of the extreme celebrity worship that has made the O.J. Simpson circus into the biggest TV event of all time. In the main, Van Sant and Henry know just how to exploit that element of their film. Yet the ending is a letdown. Unlike The Player, which invited the viewer to chuckle all the way to the fade-to-black, To Die For abandons parody for a disappointingly traditional wrap-up (although there is an in-joke for those who recognize David Cronenberg). Fortunately, this shift in tone doesn't happen until late in the proceedings.
Nicole Kidman does a wonderful job as the vacuous, vicious Suzanne, and a trio of young actors -- Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, and Casey Affleck -- are suitably vacant-eyed as the dunces she manipulates into murder. It takes a strong performance to successfully portray a character with so little mental capacity, and these three come across as completely clueless. Kidman, however, steals the film, playing Suzanne with a seductive gusto that results in her best work since Dead Calm.
To Die For has its share of truly delicious sequences, and some biting dialogue worth killing for. The best moments occur during a taped interview with Suzanne where she discusses her frighteningly shallow theories about life, death, television, and keeping her maiden name for on-air work. In the end, however, To Die For doesn't go quite far enough -- there are times when Van Sant stays a little too conventional, and this causes the picture to have only teeth when it could have had fangs.
To Die For (United States, 1995)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland, Illeana Douglas, Wayne Knight
Screenplay: Buck Henry based on the novel by Joyce Maynard
Cinematography: Eric Alan
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures