To Die For (1995)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/03/07 22:41:07

"Not bad; a bit shallow."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), the ice-hearted weatherwoman at the center of 'To Die For,' seems to exist entirely on the surface. She's on TV even when she isn't on TV; she's a walking commercial for herself.

To Die For is a dark-carnival satire on the media, a favorite punching bag of late. Suzanne represents not only the blankness of electronic culture but the blankness of those on both sides of the tube who consider TV the pinnacle of human potential. To have one's image transmitted to a piece of household furniture is to achieve nirvana. We laugh knowingly and uneasily at the movie, and we laugh knowingly at our own unease.

To Die For is certainly unlike anything the director, Gus Van Sant, had done before. His first two features, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, were like fever logic: You could no more do justice to them by describing them than you could effectively describe a pleasant but unsettling dream -- your attempts to evoke the experience with rational waking language become silly and reductive. ("It's about these two male hustlers, see, and some of it is based on Shakespeare, and .... Hey, where you goin'?") Van Sant's last film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was a travesty, a foolishly addled fantasia only a major talent given free rein could have made. To Die For has a crisp professional snap, as if the producer had splashed cold water on Van Sant between takes. The script, by Buck Henry, based on Joyce Maynard's novel, is acrid and tight and structured like a documentary; following Henry's blueprint, Van Sant has little room to wander. Yet the true heart of To Die For -- what sets it apart from the other recent media-evil movies -- is in the scenes when Van Sant softens his focus, lets up on the dart-throwing, and stays closest to Maynard's penetrating novel.

Suzanne kneels at the altar of Maria Shriver and all the other glamorous priestesses of network news; she patterns her life on theirs. She marries Larry (Matt Dillon), a harmless, amiable lunk who runs a bar and pressures Suzanne to settle down and have kids. Children aren't part of Suzanne's equation; neither, really, is Larry (which raises the question of why she married him). Larry becomes an obstacle that Suzanne must remove. Working on a "Kids Speak Out" segment for the local cable-access station, Suzanne prowls the small-town high school and picks out three outcasts, two of whom she actively seduces: Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), a heavy-metal stoner drowning in his own libido, and Lydia (Alison Folland), a sad, heavy girl who sees Suzanne as a mother, sister, and savior. Suzanne weaves an intricate web of lies, promises, and flattery, luring the kids into her plot to get Larry out of the way.

Joyce Maynard based her story loosely on the Pamela Smart case. Her novel was less about the media circus or the facts of the murder itself than about the human consequences of Suzanne's amorality -- the ordinary, anonymous people whose lives crashed against the sharp rocks of her ambition. Suzanne gives the kids what they need (sex, attention) until she gets what she needs from them. At several points, Van Sant calls a time-out to the snickering black comedy so we can listen to Jimmy and Lydia pouring out their disillusionment, and Phoenix and Folland reward him with wrenching portraits of teenage wasteland -- far more evocative and disturbing than anything in Kids. Without them, To Die For would be a sleek cartoon version of Network rewritten by James M. Cain.

Nicole Kidman keeps you watching; she creates an airhead who's fun to loathe. But Van Sant's sad compassion for the kids doesn't extend to Suzanne. Maynard didn't ask our sympathy for this blow-dried devil, but she did suggest that there was something tragic and chilling about someone of Suzanne's obviously tiny talent entertaining such lavish dreams to the point of murder. (Suzanne wouldn't have gone far, Larry or no Larry.) We saw Suzanne as a victim of her own deluded view of the American dream. Kidman gives a crowd-pleasing Serial Mom performance, which would have been fine in Serial Mom. But when she's acting with Phoenix or Folland, or, for that matter, with Illeana Douglas and Dan Hedaya as Larry's sister and dad -- actors who are permitted to express basic human feelings and seem to exist in another, more naturalistic movie -- Kidman looks so two-dimensional she's almost an abstraction of shallowness. Even when Suzanne drops her pearly act and bares her fangs, she's as readable as a cartoon. Van Sant is saying that Suzanne's surface is all there is to her. But that isn't enough to sustain a satire.

And yet .... Van Sant does something new here, something he couldn't have done without the clothesline of media satire to hang it on. Every day, if we can stomach it, we can tune in to Ricki or Sally Jessy and watch the freak show -- middle Americans dusting off the skeletons in their closets and exposing them for the cameras. The global village has become a surreal, symbiotic therapy circle, a Moebius strip of disclosure in which we at home take comfort in watching people infinitely more screwed up than we are, and the guests on the shows find redemption in their fifteen minutes of fame, blasting through suffocating anonymity as Rupert Pupkin hungered to do in The King of Comedy. (Rupert has become as vivid an emblem of late-20th-century insanity as Travis Bickle.) Maynard's novel anticipated the talk-show brouhaha involving guests whose lives were ruined (and, in one case, snuffed out) by their talk-show appearances.

To Die For takes the expected easy shots at Suzanne, whom we don't buy any more than we buy Ricki or Sally Jessy when they click into compassion mode to prompt a faltering guest. But the odd phenomenon of starstruck gullibility -- ordinary people putting themselves in the hands of carny barkers and snake-oil salesmen legitimized by their televised image -- is a new subject in movies.

'To Die For' doesn't let us feel superior to the people we might feel superior to if we saw them sobbing to Ricki about the nasty weatherwoman who led them astray. For that, it gets two cheers from me. For the full three cheers, it would have to be brave enough to refuse to let us feel superior to Suzanne Stone, who is as warped and as trapped by the camera eye as anyone else in the movie.

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