Friday Editor’s Pick: To Die For (1995)

by on September 17, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 23 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Gus Van Sant” continues at Museum of the Moving Image thru Sept 30.


Retrospective critical reaction is mixed for Van Sant’s “mainstream” black comedy penned by legend Buck Henry, but we agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum that its “good nasty fun,” and love his observation that Kidman’s “spot-on performance may be the best of its kind since Tuesday Weld’s wicked sexual turn in Lord Love a Duck.” Weld is of course the all-too-deserving recipient of a toast at Film Society of Lincoln Center this same weekend, and Lord Love a Duck one of her most neglected tour de forces (its our Editor’s Pick tomorrow).


Meanwhile, To Die For introduced Kidman as more than Tom Cruise arm candy (remember those days?), while a new Phoenix brother (Joaquin, in his first major role) assumes the throne. And did we mention it has one of the best closing credit sequences ever?


As Van Sant confessed to Attitude,”To Die For is camp and I don’t know why. I’m a gay director, yes; but I don’t think I’m a campy director. Somehow it came out.”


Matt Connolly in his must-read feature on Van Sant’s career for Alt Screen:

Van Sant’s first feature for a major studio (Columbia Pictures), the film follows the machinations of Suzanne Scott (Nicole Kidman), a career-obsessed blonde whose dream of becoming the next Diane Sawyer lands her a gig as a local television weather woman. Kidman plays her with wide, intense eyes and a frozen toothy grin that can barely hide the disdain she has for anyone who doesn’t share her fanatical ambition. Affable husband Larry (Matt Dillon) indulges her ambitions to a point, but finally insists that she take on the traditional role of supporting his family’s restaurant. Van Sant captures her reaction to Larry’s demands in a tight, extended close-up. Disbelief, self-delusion, anger, and genuine hurt break through Suzanne’s impeccably made-up features. It’s a rare humanizing moment for a character who’s mostly defined by starry-eyed ruthlessness, and the film could use a few more of them.


To Die For often works on its own black-comic terms. We learn of Suzanne’s successful scheme to kill Larry through post-facto television news interviews, talk-show appearances, and Suzanne’s own confessional/audition tape: noir-ish flashbacks as refracted through the prism of media saturation. But that measured sympathy for Suzanne quickly evaporates as the film progresses. She becomes a satiric object and little more, the figurative (and, in the end, literal) icy blonde as avatar for mid-90s fame-mania.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

For New Hampshire girl Suzanne Stone (Kidman), you’re nobody in America unless you’re on TV; indeed, she’d die to achieve small-screen celebrity. Fortunately for her, she’s both determined and attractive enough to work her seductive wiles on the local cable-station boss, who appoints her weather presenter – and then allows her to work on a documentary with and about high school kids. Against all odds, she befriends three awesomely inarticulate no-hopers – but there’s method to her madness: her husband Larry (Dillon) wants to have kids, so she exerts her influence over the trio to defend her endangered career. If you’ve hitherto failed to respond to the laid-back oddball appeal of Van Sant’s movies, fear not: this is a sharp, consistently funny blend of black comedy and satire on the deleterious effects of television.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The film is filled with perfect character studies. Dillon, the former teen idol whose acting has always been underrated, here turns in a sly comic performance as a man dazzled by beauty but seduced by comfort. Illeana Douglas is Janice, Suzanne’s ice-skating sister-in-law, who spots her as a phony and makes life uncomfortable by calling her on it. Dan Hedaya plays the father-in-law who rules his Italian family with an ebullient hand. And Buck Henry plays a high school teacher with a vast repertory of colorful verbal threats for his students.


Finally, though, the movie is about Suzanne, and Nicole Kidman’s work here is inspired. Her clothes, her makeup, her hair, her speech, her manner, even the way she carries herself (as if aware of the eyes of millions) are all brought to a perfect pitch: Her Suzanne is so utterly absorbed in being herself that there is an eerie conviction, even in the comedy. She plays Suzanne as the kind of woman who pities us – because we aren’t her, and you know what? We never will be.



Briony Hanson interviews Van Sant, for The Guardian:

BH: As I’ve been looking back on your films, there’s one that really sticks out as being different, if only because it is a comedy, a very black comedy, which is To Die For. Did you find that a very different experience? And also, why have you never gone back to comedy?
GVS: Well, Buck Henry was the screenwriter; Joyce Maynard wrote a novel about an incident in New Hampshire, the Pamela Smart case, where she had seduced a young student and convinced him to kill her husband so they could spend the rest of their lives together, and then turned her back on him after he killed the husband. Joyce wrote a somewhat light novel, but it wasn’t really a straight-ahead comedy. But Buck Henry adapted that book, so he really gave it a whole other spin, sort of like a comedy with blackouts, one-liners and jokes, that weren’t in the book. So it was the element of Buck Henry who brought us into that realm.


BH: So it was a very different kind of project for you to take on?
GVS: Yeah. I guess. I had wanted to do a comedy. I have often wanted to do Dude, Where’s My Car 2. Or a Judd Apatow movie.


Nicole Kidman in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

Once she saw one, “To Die For’s” Suzanne, she went after it, and once she got it, applied the same intensity to preparing for it. And that meant, despite living here for six years, a crash course in a certain stratum of American culture.


“I checked into a hotel, ordered room service, watched TV for three days and went completely nuts doing it,” she laughs. “The hypnotic effect of television is just extraordinary. The way in which it gets into you . . . you can’t turn it off. Watching all those talk shows, all the yelling. You’re like this first [ she opens her eyes wide ] it’s everything you look down your nose at and then you’re [ she screams ] doing everything the audience is doing. You have to go ‘Whoa!’ That’s how I understood [Suzanne]. That’s what she’s been raised on. So she’s a victim of society, a victim of that.”


She and Van Sant differed some what on how to play her, how ever. He was more objective, more “savage” in her words; she, more protective. She saw a naivete in her. Still, Kidman doesn’t stint on shading her as bizarre and psychotic. “I’m vicious in it, totally vicious! It’s wonderful to be able to be that vicious,” she laughs.

The great Illeana Douglas reminisces to the Onion AV Club:

ID: Gus Van Sant is who I credit with teaching me all about the technical aspects of filmmaking—the cameras, the lenses. He was very open. We’d do a scene, and he’d say, “How would you shoot it?” I’d go, “I’d shoot an overhead,” and it would become an overhead. He was an amazing teacher. I started learning all about the camera, how to clock your performance for different lenses, things like that. Again, it was the glory days of filmmaking, where you’d be there for eight weeks, and you’d see each other breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, Nicole Kidman—Tom Cruise was there—Buck Henry. It was before “celebrity.” You asked me, “What ruined it?” Probably celebrity. It was when people still wanted to be artists. We still had those John Cassavetes philosophies. You weren’t thinking, “This person’s a celebrity.” That happened sometime in the mid-’90s. Everything sort of changed. We’re this society where everybody is famous now, so actors aren’t really very special.


AVC: To Die For is a really prescient comment on that exact thing. For example, it recently reentered the cultural lexicon when Sarah Palin was nominated.

ID: Absolutely! [Laughs.] It certainly did. That movie will always be referenced. At the end, when you hear that applause—you know, we’re always going to have moments like that. It’s way ahead of its time.



Chris Wisniewski for Reverse Shot:

Though the characters’ recollections structure the narrative, the flashbacks they motivate are shot more or less as conventional narrative cinema. As a result, Van Sant sets up two conflicting modes of address that he never quite resolves: the multiplicity of voices framing the story and the omniscient visual storytelling of the flashbacks. At first, Van Sant’s approach facilitates propulsive editing and a disarming uncertainty: as spectators, we don’t know if we can trust what we see and hear, nor do we have a central point of identification, since Suzanne remains so ambiguous, her character largely reconstructed through other people’s perception of her. Once the teenagers make their way into the narrative proper, though—about halfway into the film—the framing interviews become less frequent, and the flashbacks become increasingly dissociated from the narration, including scenes that the “narrating” characters couldn’t be privy to, such as an argument between the third killer (Casey Affleck) and his teacher (screenwriter Henry) and a cutaway to a dull conversation between Larry and his father (Dan Hedaya) in a car. In its second half, To Die For settles into a far more conventional approach, with the tacked-on interviews functioning more as interstitials than as a central narrative device.


It’s a shame, too, because the fractured narrative approach of the first half of the film has intellectual and thematic resonance: the multiple points-of-view establish a contest (played out on and through television) about who has the right to tell Suzanne’s story, and in a sense, to discursively define her identity. In Suzanne’s opening monologue—spoken for a video camera—she introduces herself with her married name, Suzanne Maretto, before hesitating and reintroducing herself with her “own name,” her “professional name,” Suzanne Stone. This simple act announces the existential crisis that drives the film: Suzanne wants to be on television because, as she insists, “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” In a perverse way, To Die For sets Suzanne up as a pseudo-feminist, rejecting an identity as wife/mother for a life and identity of her own, forged through her profession—and not just any profession, but one that allows her, in the parlance of Youtube, to broadcast herself (or her self). As Larry plays with young children at a family gathering, Suzanne’s dismissive annoyance is both sad and funny; we may reject her outrageous selfishness, ambition, and vanity, played undeniably for laughs, but To Die For hardly presents domesticity as a viable alternative. Suzanne views domestic life as self-erasure and conflates publicity with identity. In its best moments, To Die For uses its fractured narrative approach, its multiplicity of televised voices, to expose this central conflict over who gets to define Suzanne Maretto (née Stone) and to map this conflict back onto the media-obsession of our twisted, celebrity-driven culture.



Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

On a formal, aesthetic level, To Die For has only the most tenuous of connections to Van Sant’s previous or current oeuvre. Its fractured editing style and the pastiche structure of its story is most reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, which also utilized a multiplicity of narrative modes and seemed stitched together from disparate parts. But whereas in Idaho this narrative rupturing is unmotivated, simply a matter of stylistic idiosyncrasy in the film’s construction, in To Die For the structure and style are intimately linked with the film’s overarching theme: the media. It’s the difference between the pure aesthetics of the earlier films and the more commercial nature of this project, based on a sensationalist novel and awash in trash culture. Van Sant’s seeming move towards traditional storytelling places the film apart from both his rambling earlier films and his more recent nearly plotless and wordless meditations on character and place. And yet the film also stands apart even from Van Sant’s other mainstream films, because in a way it’s as personal a film as any other he’s done — just a personal film in a vein he hasn’t mined otherwise either before or since.


In addition to the obvious pleasures of this film on its own merits — not only Kidman’s stunning central performance, but the equally great turn by Phoenix as the awkward high school boy she seduces in order to kill her husband — To Die For is an interesting film to think of in light of Van Sant’s other films. For one thing, it’s perhaps the first hint of the fascination with Hitchcock that led to his later Psycho remake. The opening shots of the film, before the credits, are a series of establishing shots of small town buildings and settings, and they establish the reality of this town with a Hitchcockian eye for detail and atmosphere. They remind me of the placidly presented postcard-like establishing shots of The Trouble With Harry, with Hitch’s autumnal New England reds and oranges replaced by wintry gray and white. This film is also the first trace of Van Sant’s fascination with celebrity and the media treatment of violence, themes that flow, in more subdued ways, throughout his post-millennial “death trilogy.” Think of To Die For as the documentary, chronicling the ways in which the media sensationalizes, sexualizes, and even celebrates violence, while the latter three films are the response to this status quo, draining the televised gloss from these tales of murder and self-destruction in order to focus on more prosaic realities. In this light, To Die For begins to seem like quite an important film to Van Sant’s body of work, not at all a first foray into mainstream filmmaking but a first look at the cycles of violence and celebrity infecting our culture.


This wonderfully metafictional ending is Van Sant’s way of implicating his own work in the film’s media satire, completing the cycle by calling into question the way all media images represent reality. This is a unique one-off for Van Sant, a commercial work that is nevertheless infused with his own obsessions, not at all the formulaic hack work that his Hollywood period is all too often dismissed as. It’s a film very much deserving of reconsideration, both as a hilarious satire in its own right, and as a crucial part of Van Sant’s body of work.



Dennis Grunes at his epnoymous blog:

Working from someone else’s script, Gus Van Sant eschews his usual fragrant romanticism for an apposite chilly wit. To be sure, he brings to bear his trademark compassion in dealing with the young: in particular, Lydia and fragile James (Joaquin—formerly Leaf—Phoenix, touching), whom Suzanne takes as a lover solely to manipulate him into murdering her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon, salt-of-the-earth marvelous)—only, of course, the boy falls agonizingly in love with her. In the main, however, To Die For is frosty, withering satire, and Van Sant makes himself right at home. The compositional method—the intercutting of interview and flashback, sometimes moving from one character’s voice to another’s while sustaining a continuous text in consecutive shots (for instance, by shifting from a character who is quoting to the character being quoted)—bespeaks the film’s intricately edited form and analytical bent. And visually the film stuns. A nice touch: when Larry is killed, a closeup of one of his eyes seems to show it turning to ice. More than a touch: a camera (s)lowly sliding overhead uncovering a dead Suzanne buried under ice across which blows snow: this, a key image showing Suzanne’s death as mere extension of an empty life, with the sheet of ice encasing her the ultimate form of the TV screen on which her soulless face has appeared throughout the film. And Van Sant’s most complex passage sings: the night of her spouse’s murder, home from her telecast, Suzanne walks outside to the press to which she is drawn by her thirst for publicity and celebrity—a walk rendered by Van Sant in slow motion and coordinated with, in real time, the national anthem’s being played, at sign-off, on the living room TV. Here we face an utter confusion of fantasy and reality, where what runs on television seems more “real” than, because of the slow motion, the “reality” playing out around it: a visual encapsulation of one of the film’s major themes.


But the cool tone that Van Sant sustains is no less decisive for the success of this fine comedy. Indeed, so detailed is Suzanne’s relentless manipulation of James that, absent this tone and other distancing strategies such as the analytical cutting, its enactment would be intolerable. Evil is not pretty, nor does gorgeous Nicole Kidman make it so. Guided by Van Sant, Kidman dazzles, managing the daunting feat of wittily showing a witless Suzanne without lending the character any of her own (Nicole Kidman’s) wit. In short, Kidman’s performance, coolly walking a tightrope, is of a piece with the filmmaker’s intent. It’s a nonportrait: a young woman without personality or human sympathy—only pizzazz, as Suzanne goes after her hollow dream of celebrity in an hysterical attempt to locate an ego. Three other characters in this film are also close to being egoless: James, who lacks the ability to construct a tough façade to protect his sore vulnerability—the kind of front behind which adolescents, especially boys, often go about the painstaking work of ego formation; family-loving Larry, who wants only to accommodate a beautiful wife, and who is hugely proud of her very small career—until, pricking his masculine pride, his sister, Janice, badgers him into saying no to Suzanne just once; and Lydia, who is desperate to believe Suzanne and to absorb whatever Suzanne has to offer. Suzanne exploits them all. Because it is about exploitation (including self-exploitation), this material is itself highly exploitable; therefore, we are fortunate that scenarist Henry, director Van Sant, star Kidman and the cutter, Van Sant’s loyal, miraculously sensitive Curtiss Clayton, opting for cool distancing, all adamantly refuse to exploit any of it. This is the humane and artistic advantage that To Die For holds over Oliver Stone’s in-your-face Natural Born Killers (1994), which touches on similar themes. To Die For thus emerges as a satire of fine integrity; even its refusal to condescend to its characters, some of whom churlish we might want to take to task, allows the film to grow calmly, rationally, coherently into a series of kaleidoscopic turns in which we are able to see, and note, recognizable contours of the America in which we live.


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