To Die For

1995, Movie, R, 100 mins

Review

TO DIE FOR
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Like Roseanne, Gus Van Sant refuses to compromise his trademark smarty-pants assault on storybook America. An openly gay filmmaker, he loves to tweak the condescending rhetoric of patriarchy -- he did so effortlessly in MALA NOCHE and DRUGSTORE COWBOY, laboriously in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and lugubriously in EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES.

This time out, building on a tough-minded Buck Henry script adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel, Van Sant emerges from subcultural territory to take on the middle-class mainstream. TO DIE FOR uses the tabloid-ready Pamela Smart murder case to mount an impudent, satirical attack on America's obsessive culture of celebrity.

From the first frame, when Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman) chattily introduces herself, we get the picture: She's the Exterminating Angel of Little Hope, NH, a Miss America-caricature-turned-killer-TV-weather-girl. Hell-bent on conquering the world of television -- "You're nobody in America unless you're on TV," Suzanne coos, "because what's the point of doing something worthwhile if nobody's watching?" -- she's prepared to bump off anyone who stands in her way. Which is too bad for hubby Larry (Matt Dillon), a small-town tavern-keeper who saw his best days in high school and has since graduated to six-pack oblivion in front of the set.

A latter-day Susie Creamcheese with a degree in electronic journalism and an urge to kill, Suzanne's a monstrous creation of mass culture, and she embodies its contradictions. Even her professional name, Suzanne Stone -- as in Sommers and Sharon -- sounds like movie glamour crunched together with cheesy TV celebrity. Nicole Kidman does the best work of her career in a character that seems to fit her tighter than pantyhose. Swathed in camera-friendly pastels, she's dead from the neck up (a scene with uncredited George Segal confirms that) but she's got legs like scissors, ambition like a knife, and a will of pure steel.

TO DIE FOR is smart fun because each collaborator played to his strength. Occasional journalist Maynard got the story, neatly extracting Suzanne from the life of Pamela Smart, the high school teacher who thrilled the nation in 1991 by cajoling a libidinous teenager to murder her husband.

Van Sant, meanwhile, understood his players. He may be the only director who can tease nuance and subtlety out of Matt Dillon (see DRUGSTORE COWBOY), and he twists previously one-dimensional Kidman inside out to reveal an actress who can satirize herself. No coaching is required for Illeana Douglas, who turns in a witty performance as Larry's seen-it-all sister, a cynical woman who nevertheless aspires to join the Ice Capades. Joacquin Phoenix, as the high school kid who becomes Suzanne's pawn, makes a big impression just by standing still and registering hurt.

And everybody's favorite bad boy, Buck Henry, constructed a screenplay whose architecture neatly incorporates human gargoyles. You laugh at TO DIE FOR because it's grotesque, and you hardly notice that it's built on the dark side of our fears and fantasies about women in the workplace. leave a comment --Harlan Jacobson

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