Filmmaker Gus Van Sant almost scored another flop to go along with his last film--Even Cowgirls Get the Blues--based on the kind of advance notice his latest movie, To Die For, got before it hit Cannes.
The audiences at that much-hyped Italian film festival have been known to commit sin--deluging a mediocre film with awards based on its hipness level. But they've also redeemed a few worthy films by cranking their word-of-mouth hipness levels way up.
The latter was what happened in the case of To Die For, a modest, smart, tightly executed black comedy about a woman (Nicole Kidman) from a tiny New Hampshire town whose lust for national fame supersedes all other considerations, including respect for human life. The character Kidman plays, named Suzanne Stone, is, of course, oblivious to her own wanton superficiality, but that's one of the film's chief pleasures--watching her explain every heinous act of coercion, seduction, and duplicity as part of a master plan toward achieving the ultimate goal: TV celebrity. Whether that be as cable-access weatherwoman or defendant in a high-profile murder case, Suzanne doesn't seem to care.
We should zero in on two sources to understand the wild, witty final film that is To Die For--a feature that caused not a few members of the preview audience to bail out: the unconventional mixture of perspective (there are four different narrators who address the audience directly at intervals, including Suzanne herself) and a stubborn refusal to crescendo with emotion while its characters are still being assembled.
Screenwriter Buck Henry, who makes a brief cameo in the film as a stern high school teacher, also wrote the scripts for Catch 22 and The Graduate. Much as it seems strange to credit the oft-maligned and ignored scriptwriter for a film's final version, To Die For reverberates with Henry's black comic sense, a world view which suggests all of us are ripe for control by our own darkest impulses. Director Gus Van Sant knows a thing or two about dark impulses; he's chronicled them throughout his filmmaking career, beginning with the deadpan Mala Noche (1987), and continuing through his loopy masterpiece Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and into the psuedo-gay fantasias My Own Private Idaho and last year's Tom Robbins adaptation, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Van Sant is a gay man who has a peculiar fascination with runaways, wanderers, and all manner of malcontents. His fans are accustomed to his stories rambling across their movie screens, but To Die For skips along with the confident pace of a much younger filmmaker. Stories abound concerning the last-minute edits this film underwent, and any student of Van Sant should detect a bouncier, more uplifting gait in the narrative.
The film introduces its anti-heroine through a series of artfully edited newspaper items as Danny Elfman's typically carnivalesque score gyrates in the background. She has already committed a crime--soliciting two teenagers to kill her husband--and been found not guilty. Suzanne Stone may not be the brightest person in the world, but she is ruthless about getting what she wants and capable of turning in a fine performance to make sure that happens.
In flashbacks, she is languishing in the appropriately named bucolic burg of Little Hope. She marries her hapless husband Larry (Matt Dillon), the son of an Italian restaurateur, in a thoughtless rush prompted by his undying adulation. Suzanne is fascinated by the medium of television and is dead set on a career as a TV news anchorwoman--as she phrases it in a rare guileless moment, "What's the point of doing anything if there aren't people to watch you?"
Unfortunately, Larry turns out to be a bit too ethnic to suit Suzanne's plans. He also demands that she quit her part-time job at the local cable access station and work at his family business, and above all, drop the silly camcorder documentary she's making about three local "lost youths" (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland). The girl, a rather mousy layabout named Lydia (Folland), worships Suzanne for her ultra-femininity, while the boys, Jimmy and Russell, are both intimidated and aroused by her unwavering stare.
Nicole Kidman has been making the rounds of the national press gushing that, with the role of Suzanne, she has finally found a complex, juicy part to show her skills. While this conniving bitch goddess is indeed a showy role that Kidman tackles with impressive restraint and whiz-bang comic timing (check out how she imbues lines like "You might be surprised to learn, Lydia, that some of our most prominent national celebrities started by accidentally seeing themselves on TV," with a sincere, smug authority), it's hardly complex. Suzanne isn't a woman--she's a distillation of our collective hunger for attention, a cold-hearted temptress who sharpens her claws on the talk-show culture.
To Die For doesn't make any more salient points about our obsession with fame than the exquisite, alarming HBO TV-movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" did two years ago. Van Sant's forte isn't trenchant social commentary, it's ragged character development, but he's smart enough to let the actors ride Buck Henry's artfully wicked dialogue, only occasionally interrupting with a well-placed directorial indulgence (he films Joaquin Phoenix's masturbation fantasy as a TV news romp).
By now you're very likely sick to death of hearing about how all of us just want to be famous, if not completely desensitized by the depressing evidence of it on TV channels around the clock. To Die For won't score any points for trailblazing new thematic territory, but it manages to wag its red-nailed finger in your face and make the gesture seem like an invitation to enjoy, not just criticize.
To Die For. Columbia. Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Dillon. Written by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Now playing.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.