An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: To Die For (1995)
PUBLISHED: 08:02 12 August 2018
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
To Die For; dir: Gus Van Sant; starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck. Cert:15 (1995)
If the Australian thriller Dead Calm announced the arrival of Nicole Kidman as someone to watch, it was Gus Van Sant’s psychological thriller that made her a star. It also set out her stall as a Hollywood A lister who also wanted the freedom to make edgy, slightly off-the-wall indie movies. In many ways To Die For is a template for the rest of her career.
This is also celebrates the fact that this is a thriller which has a woman at the heart of the action. She is living life on her terms, she is in charge of her own ambition and she certainly has no time for being an adornment for a male partner – either personally or professionally.
The fact that she is dangerously unbalanced is neither here nor there. Suzanne Stone (Kidman) is a woman who takes charge and needs to be the mistress of her own destiny.
She displays all the attributes of a high-flying business executive but when we meet her she is the weather presenter on a small-town TV station.
TV is good, TV is a start. It provides her with exposure. It gets her noticed but we quickly realise that local TV is but a stepping stone. She wants to become a celebrity, she wants to be featured in the gossip magazines she sees at the supermarket checkouts.
However, there is one thing holding her back. She has married the wrong man. A rare mis-step has seen her hitched to Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). Larry is a humble bartender in his father’s restaurant and being a good Italian-American he wants to start a family.
This is the last thing Suzanne needs. This is a woman so ambitious that she organises her honeymoon to be in Florida, so she can attend a media conference while he new husband goes fishing. She also doesn’t hesitate to sleep with a powerful TV executive (George Segal) at this conference because he tells her that one of her heroes slept with him and he enabled her to write her own reference.
The newly married Suzanne Stone has no qualms about using sex to get ahead and quickly comes to the conclusion that her nice but dim husband also has to go.
Divorce is out of the question because she will lose the house and the sympathy of the public she wants to adore her. The answer to her dilemma is simple and brutal. She befriends three airheads from the local high school: Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland) and persuades them to dispose of her unsuspecting other half.
If all this sounds a little bleak then the plot doesn’t represent the brilliant black humour that explodes out of Buck Henry scripts and it doesn’t reflect Nicole Kidman’s brilliant, multi-layered performance as Suzanne.
This ambitious weather girl is a monster but she is a fascinating monster. She seduces the audience just as easily as she bewitches her prospective employers. Nicole’s towering achievement is turning what could have been a one-dimensional villain into a complex and compelling, vain and egomaniacal character who we can’t take our eyes off. The reason for this is that she is also vulnerable and human.
Gus van Sant also recognises this and he delivers a similarly bravura performance behind the camera, telling the story in a pseudo-documentary style, jumping-cutting, mixing interviews and flashbacks and giving the film bags of energy and a real identity.
He also resists the temptation to play this outrageous story as farce. That would be the easy option but instead opts for something darker, funnier and more rewarding: a very black satire on the modern desire for fame and celebrity at any price.
If Kidman steals centrestage, Matt Dillon and the supporting cast turn in nicely judged supporting performances which understand the story being told. Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix both offer slyly comic character studies.
But, this is Kidman’s movie. It will probably be her career-best performance, it is certainly the best script she has had to work with so far. Suzanne Stone gleefully tells us that she is a graduate in electronic journalism. Her clothes, her makeup, her hair, her speech prove to us that she is always camera-ready. In a chilling self-revelatory moment she tells us: “What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if people aren’t watching?” In the age of You Tube and social media To Die For is a story which is frighteningly more relevant now than it was 20 years ago.