To Die For
1995, R, 106 min. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Kurtwood Smith, Wayne Knight, Maria Tucci, Holland Taylor.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 6, 1995
With great wit, humor, and style, this movie serves all America its just desserts and, while the concoction and its ingredients may not kill us, it is to die for. The movie's acerbic satire is directed toward our romance with fame and celebrity and toward the bearers of their power: mass media in the form of TV and the tabloids. Though its target is broad, the movie's barbs are aimed with great precision. With To Die For, director Gus Van Sant has turned in his finest work since his peerless Drugstore Cowboy. This movie, which could have been shaped in a manner as garish and ostentatious as its subject matter is, instead, imbued with Van Sant's subtle humor and guerrilla image-making. In some ways, I suspect that To Die For is the movie that Natural Born Killers really wanted to be, at least in terms of its blows against the insatiable maw of the mass media. As a satire of a milieu, To Die For also has a Robert Altmanesque quality, but one that is stripped of all Altman's venomous belittlement of his characters. Buck Henry's smart script, which was adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel, employs the same sort of incisive social commentary that established Henry's satiric reputation early on with his outstanding television writing (The Steve Allen and Gary Moore shows, That Was the Week That Was, Get Smart) and scripts for films such as The Graduate and Catch-22. Credit must also be given to Nicole Kidman, who makes a career breakthrough with this film in her unheralded debut as a comic actress. She exposes a natural talent for comedy and it's a side of her that we've never really seen before. Kidman inhabits the lead character of Suzanne Stone (yes, Suzanne Stone) with such sly and delicious zest that we can only wonder why this aspect of her acting has been buried under blonde dramatic ambitions. Suzanne Stone is a media creature who feels that she only exists if she's on television. As she often comments, “What's the point of doing anything good if nobody's watching?” She talks her way into a local TV job and works her way up to weather girl, a job that she views as her ticket out of Nowheresville, New England. Her husband (Matt Dillon) thinks Suzanne is the golden girl of his dreams and is blinded with love for her. The rest of his family sees more clearly. To Die For is constructed in a documentary format that uses a collection of interview sound bites and video footage to create a picture of Suzanne: a media whore who'll stop at nothing, even murdering her husband, to achieve the celebrity she desires?; a media victim who's sacrificed self-identity for personality?; a media invention who exists only because we recognize and respond to her presence? Kudos also should go to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor who has regularly worked with Van Sant (as had much of To Die For's crew). Suzanne's pastel print outfits fit the character as perfectly as the low-rent Seventies attire fit the characters in Drugstore Cowboy. Suzanne always looks perfect, whether her image is on the cover of the tabloids at her husband's funeral or on the TV as the perky weather gal flipping sunshine magnets onto the map. With To Die For, the cathode ray emerges as a modern energy source. It remains for us to determine its future use.