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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Gus Van Sant
History Circles Its Tail
History Circles Its Tail
Gus Van Sant on the life of Seventies crusader Harvey Milk and the parallels between then and now

Clay Smith, Dec. 5, 2008

More Gus Van Sant
Don't Worry, Gus Van Sant Won't Get Far on Foot
Q&A: Gus Van Sant
Oscar-nominated director talks his new cartooning biopic

Richard Whittaker, July 19, 2018

More Gus Van Sant Films
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
Joaquin Phoenix creates a charming warts-and-all portrait of cartoonist John Callahan

Richard Whittaker, July 20, 2018

Promised Land
Matt Damon and John Krasinski star in this modern morality tale about fracking in America; Gus Van Sant directs.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Jan. 4, 2013

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
The Last Tree
British migrant coming-of-age drama empathetically explores what it is to belong

July 17, 2020

The Truth
Binoche and Deneuve clash exquisitely as mère et fille

July 3, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

To Die For, Gus Van Sant, Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Kurtwood Smith, Wayne Knight, Maria Tucci, Holland Taylor

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle