In the opening scenes of Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” we discover that a small-town restaurant owner has been murdered and his wife is the prime suspect.
There’s also the involvement with three high school kids (Casey Affleck, Alison Folland and Joaquin Phoenix), whose presence adds a layer of corruption and lurid fascination. All of this is presented by the opening credits via newspaper and gossip rag clips, as Danny Elfman’s playful, sinister score draws us in.
Not long after, we see restauranteur Larry Muretto (Matt Dillon) in flashbacks, both on his wedding day and dead on his living room floor. Although we know right away where “To Die For” is going, we, like someone staring at National Enquirer in a grocery checkout aisle or a TMZ segment, can’t help but watch.
“To Die For” is less about the crime itself than someone’s insatiable need for fame at any cost.
Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Stone is, from her first scenes, driven, chipper and insufferable as Larry’s wife. She’s an encyclopedia of pop culture and newscaster knowledge years before the Internet’s rise.
Stone possess an unquenchable need to be famous and no real talent. Her husband believes in her but mostly looks the other way while she pursues celebrity status while forcing her way onto a local TV station.
Muretto’s sister, played by a pitch-perfect Ileana Douglas, senses there’s something wrong about Suzanne but chalks it up to insecurity. When Suzanne reaches out to a local high school to recruit subjects for her “The Real World”-like reality TV show, she meets a trio of teenagers who, unfortunately, are taken under her wing and gradually agree to do anything for her.
Gus Van Sant’s 1995 comedy is about our social obsession of celebrity and how it can lead to our downfall. Based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by master satirist Buck Henry, the film is a fictional re-telling of the Pamela Smart case.
That story involved a 22-year old New Hampshire housewife who seduced a 15-year old and coerced him and a group of teens into murdering her husband.
The real Smart is currently serving a life sentence.
Smart’s infamy may have propelled the story, but there’s a strong whiff of Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher and a post-OJ Simpson trial world all over “To Die For.” By 1995, Oliver Stone’s blunt force “Natural Born Killers” of the previous year was no longer a spoof but a time capsule.
We christen these monsters on “A Current Affair,” feast on their every word via “Inside Edition,” then discard their tacky, icky personas for the next Mick and Mallory waiting in the wings.
In present terms, Suzanne Stone’s extreme narcissism and sociopathic remove would make her a mega-star in the Reality TV world. I can imagine her being on “Celebrity Rehab” as easily as a fixture on Court TV.
Weird Al Yankovic’s “Headline News” may have been specific to mid-‘90s celebrities like Joey Buttafuoco and Tonya Harding but, like Van Sant’s film, breezes by a time that has only encouraged this kind of look-at-how-crazy-and-famous-I-am mentality to become even more of a problem today.
The main players behind “To Die For” were in their element and in need of a career redirect: Van Sant was coming off the disastrous, much-delayed adaptation of Tom Robbins’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” easily the bold director’s worst film.
Kidman’s co-starring role in the year’s top-grossing movie, “Batman Forever,” felt more like a smart career move than a role worthy of her talents.
Phoenix, in his first role newly christened as “Joaquin” (after a child actor stint billed as Leaf Phoenix in “Space Camp” and “Parenthood”) was clearly seeking reinvention. The chance they took on such a risky project paid off, as the work provided is so distinct and edgy, it feels like we’re meeting these film artists for the first time.
As sensational as Kidman is here, declaring this as the film that brought her recognition as more than “Tom Cruise’s wife” isn’t fair.
Her work has always been solid.
Kidman’s American breakthrough in “Dead Calm” and stand-out supporting turns in “Billy Bathgate” and “Malice” were more than enough to distinguish her from her former husband (who, at this point, she co-starred with in two films).
There’s a quality to her performance here that bears mentioning.
In her early scenes, Kidman comes across as mannered, but her highly stylized tics reveal themselves to be Suzanne’s mask. We’re seeing a facade, as Suzanne, not unlike Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy” or Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.”
She’s a series of collective factoids, materialistic obsession, fame-hungry and blindly narcissistic desires. By the second act, Suzanne ceases to come across as an amusing caricature and becomes a truly disturbing embodiment of someone who, as the saying goes, will do anything for attention.
Affleck and Folland are engaging as the high schoolers who become Stone’s subjects but Phoenix’s performance is on another level altogether. The future star never even looks like he’s acting, as his work here is so present, natural and vulnerable, I feared for his character as much as I never questioned the authenticity of the performance.
Phoenix has a painfully honest way with his dialog, like, “When I’m not with you, I’m not alive.”
The ageless Dillon is appealingly lunk-headed, as we alternate between wanting Suzanne to escape the limitations of her domestic life but not to the point of murder. Wayne Knight is hilarious as the station manager of a fledgling local channel who is overcome by Stone’s overly ambitious ideas.
Van Sant initially fashions this like a snarky, John Waters send-up that gradually escalates into a work rich with dread. A straight-forward approach to storytelling alternates with faux-documentary, home video and talk show footage.
There’s also Kidman’s straight-to-the-camera monologues, which become unnerving — there comes a point where we don’t want to be making direct eye contact with this character, a testament to how scary Kidman can be here.
Suzanne Stone mimics a statement she overhears at a TV conference: “Television brings the world into our homes and our homes into the world.”
Later, another of Suzanne’s mantras get parroted by one of the teens under her spell: “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn who we really are…because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.”
It’s clearly an insane way of thinking, though our fixation on “Reality TV” as well as the medium in general, makes Suzanne’s mindset seem in synch with today’s reality TV personalities, online personas and influencers.
In the 1991 Madonna documentary, “Truth or Dare,” the Material Girl’s former beau Warren Beatty is seen asking rhetorically why his media-obsessed girlfriend would do anything if it wasn’t on film, because what’s the point?
Suzanne’s visible moment of bliss is when she is confronted with the headlights and microphones of reporters after a crime has taken place. The nearly orgasmic look on her face is simultaneously hilarious and monstrous.
For Suzanne, murdering her husband isn’t just a crime but a career move.
A closing scene, featuring a perfectly cast David Cronenberg, is the sort of nasty button this story really needed. Likewise, the end credits, presented with Van Sant’s trademark to end on a static shot, is also wondrous, as a character gets to sort-of “dance on the grave” of an opponent while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” merrily plays.
In Van Sant’s hands, our social addiction to celebrity and famous criminals is both a snarky comedy and a sinister cautionary tale. He knows how to mine emotions from his imagery — the slow-motion beauty of the wedding footage is as striking as the terrifying sight of Stone’s eyes on a TV screen, taunting her lover while he contemplates murder.
There’s a wonderful keyhole effect that conveys Stone’s state of mind, such as when her world starts to unravel at her husband’s suggestion that she work with him. There’s also the pitch-perfect image of a cop dusting a TV screen for prints.
“Good Will Hunting” may have brought Van Sant to the mainstream two years later, but there’s a wildness here that can only be found in his most personal, risk-taking works. For Kidman and Phoenix, it was the beginning of a career that found great mainstream success but even richer rewards from seeking out unique gems like “To Die For.”