To Die For

A mean-spirited comedy, told in a mock-tabloid fashion, To Die For traces the rise and fall of Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), an ambitious small-town girl obsessed with becoming a TV star. Unhappily married to dim restauranteur Larry Maretoo (Matt Dillon), she sleeps with a network exec (George Segal) and gets promoted to the weather spot at her local station.

Feeling entrapped by her husband's desire for children, she involves some innocent teenagers in a scheme to kill him. Whether priming for the camera, or pondering reality (“Everything is part of a big master plan”), Susan shows herself to be sly, flirtatious, and amoral. Her TV-Age narcissistic philosophy is simple: “What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if no one is watching” As John Powers noted, Susanne is a peculiarly American monster who can transform anything, even murder, into what she calls “a learning experience.”

As a send-up of media madness, it disappointed Van Sant's devotees, who expected something fresher and wilder than yet another spoof of tabloid culture. As the critic John Powers observed, “For all its hilarious moments, the picture feels slightly desperate, as if the filmmakers were trying to fatten up a satire that's not outrageous enough to compete with pictures like Natural Born Killers, let alone the reality of Kato Kaelin, John Wayne Bobbitt, and all those lunatic statues of Michael Jackson.”

True to his instincts, however, Van Sant shows sympathy for the alienated teenagers, finding something beautiful in the forlorn isolation of pudgy Lydia (Alison Folland) and Jimmy's (Joachim Phoenix) reckless love for Suzanne, which he explains by references to the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. Despite having indifferent parents and teachers, and being surrounded by trashy culture, the working-class youths still have the capacity to feel something, which cannnot be said about the characters of other youth movies.

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