To Die For (1995): Van Sant’s Satire, Starring Nicole Kidman in Breakthrough Performance

The black comedy To Die For, which played at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival (out of competition) was Gus Van Sant’s first effort for a major studio, Columbia. Its success paved the way for other more commercial yet personal projects in the future.











Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

This loose adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel features Nicole Kidman as a murderously ambitious weather girl, offering the actress (then better known as Tom Cruise’s wife) her most fully realized part to date.

Kidman had to fight to persuade Van Sant that she was right for the part of Suzanne Stone, which was originally offered to Meg Ryan, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Uma Thurman were also considered before Kidman landed the part, albeit for the reduced fee of $2 million.

Blending thematic and stylistic conventions of a darkly humorous satire with those of a mockumentary, “To Die For” relies heavily on direct-to-the-camera monologues by Suzanne Stone and personal commentaries on her behavior by the other participants. The novel that inspired the movie was loosely based on the factual trial of Pamela Smart, a school media services coordinator who was imprisoned for seducing a 16-year-old student, talking him into killing her husband. The trial was the first fully televised case in the U.S. However, the film is considerably more satirical than Maynard’s straight treatment of the case.

The film features one of Van Sant’s favorite actors, Matt Dillon, as Suzanne’s hapless husband, and the third Phoenix sibling, Joaquin Phoenix, as her equally hapless young lover. River Phoenix had died from a drug overdose outside a night club in West Hollywood in 1993, in a much-publicized incident. The tragedy devastated Van Sant, who was close friends with River and hoped to collaborate with him again, based on the fruitful teaming on “My Own Private Idaho.”

A mean-spirited comedy told in mock-tabloid fashion, “To Die For” traces the rise and fall of Suzanne, an ambitious girl obsessed with becoming a TV celeb. Living in the seaside town of Little Hope, New Hampshire, the ruthless Suzanne dreams of being a world-famous anchor. To that end, she marries Larry Maretto (Dillon), hoping that his family business will keep her financially comfortable. She begins climbing the network ladder as a weather girl at the local station, WWEN. Whether priming for the camera, or pondering reality (“Everything is part of a big master plan”), Suzanne is sly, immoral, and amoral. Her TV-Age narcissistic philosophy is simple: “What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if no one is watching.” As the critic John Powers noted, Suzanne is “a peculiarly American monster who can transform anything, even murder, into what she calls a learning experience.”

When Larry starts nudging her to take time off from her career to start a family, Suzanne, shocked by the idea, plots to kill him, which involves a high school project called “Teens Speak Out.” During a dancing project at her house while Larry is away, she seduces Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely youngster, strong-arming him and his friends, delinquent Russell Heines (Casey Affleck) and the low self-esteemed Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland), into killing Larry. Though reluctant at first, Jimmy complies when Suzanne grants him sexual favors and threatens to leave him if he does not kill her “abusive” husband. With the aid of Russell and Lydia, Jimmy commits the murder, but he is ridden with guilt after seeing Larry’s calm demeanor during their struggle.

The police begin investigating, when they retrieve “Teens Speak Out,” Suzanne’s school video in which Jimmy hints at a relationship with her. Jimmy, Russell and Lydia are arrested, but Lydia makes a deal with the police to converse with Suzanne with a secret tape recorder. Not as smart as she thinks she is, Suzanne unwittingly reveals her part in the murder. Despite the undeniable proof of her guilt, however, Suzanne is acquitted in court on the ground that the police had resorted to entrapment. She walks free, while Jimmy and Russell are sentenced to life in prison and sixteen years, respectively; Lydia gets out free for her cooperation. In the end, however, Suzanne gets her comeuppance, when she fabricates a story about Larry’s drug addiction, and how he got killed by his drug suppliers, Jimmy and Russell, who wanted to keep him silent. When Larry’s father Joe hears this on TV, he realizes that Suzanne is behind the murder, and he uses his mafia connections to have her murdered. In a stroke of luck and irony, Lydia gains national attention by telling her side of the story in a TV interview after which she becomes a celeb.

In the next to last sequence, Suzanne is lured away from her home by an old exec from Hollywood pretending to be interested in her career. He turns out to be a hit man, hired by the Morettos to get rid of the monstrous woman. The fact that he is played by director David Cronenberg, best known for his horror films (“Scanners,” “The Fly,” ”Dead Ringers”), brings an extra edge to the act. Cronenberg had recently released his controversial adaptation of the presumably unfilmable “Naked Lunch,” based on the book by Van Sant’s literary hero, William S. Burroughs (which Van Sant had also wanted to film).
The hit man murders Suzanne and buries her (off screen) in a favorite spot of hers, a frozen lake where she liked to skate. The very last scene may be too literal for a movie that aims to be subtle and cool, but is a tad too starch and obvious. It shows Larry’s sister, Janice, skating on the frozen lake where Suzanne’s corpse is hidden, thus literally dancing on her grave. There is, however, a visually satisfying coda, in which the image of Lydia Mertz, who had achieved the kind of fame Suzanne had yearned for, is split into two images, then into four, then into numerous ones (This device had been used in earlier films, such as Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Oscar-winning satire, “Network”).

As a send-up of American media madness and the obsession with becoming a celeb, “To Die For” disappointed Van Sant’s devotees who expected something 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, and reflecting his worldview, Van Sant shows sympathy for the alienated working-class teenagers. As usual, he finds something lyrical, authentic, and touching in the forlorn isolation of the pudgy Lydia and the uneducated impressionable Jimmy. Jimmy explains his reckless love for Suzanne with pop culture references to the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead,” because it’s the only real/reel knowledge he possesses. Van Sant suggests that, despite having indifferent parents and teachers, and despite being engulfed by trashy, superficial and disposable culture, working-class youths still believe in such “old-fashioned” values as love, loyalty, decency, and camaraderie. They possess the capacity for genuine emotions, even if they cannot (or unable to) verbally articulate their feelings.

In her N.Y. Times review, Janet Maslin described “To Die For” as “an irresistible black comedy and a wicked delight,” adding that, “it takes aim at tabloid ethics and hits a solid bull’s-eye, with Ms. Kidman’s teasingly beautiful Suzanne as the most alluring of media-mad monsters. The target is broad, but Gus Van Sant’s film is too expertly sharp and funny for that to matter; instead, it shows off this director’s slyness better than any of his work since ‘Drugstore Cowboy.’ Both Mr. Van Sant and Ms. Kidman have reinvented themselves miraculously for this occasion, which brings out the best in all concerned.”

Ultimately, “To Die For” is not as smart as a black comedy satirizing America’s fatal obsession with TV and the dangerously growing culture of fame. The movie lagged behind the zeitgeist: John Waters satirized this issue in his 1970s comedies (See next Chapter), and later Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” in 1983 and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” in 1994, have tackled in darker and wittier ways the obsession with fame and the cost of its relentless pursuit. Despite critical acclaim, the movie was not particularly successful vis-à-vis its budget and pre-release hype, grossing only $20 million at the box-office.