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Truly Great Movies: To Die For (1995)

August 5, 2011

Back before the mockumentary format was hip, Gus Van Sant’s tricky black comedy about the antisocial and ridiculous side effects of those who long to be famous gave us the story of the sublimely awful Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman).   Suzanne wants to be a famous television reporter and will do just about anything to achieve her dream.  This includes murdering the sweet and good-natured dolt (Matt Dillon) who is stupid enough to marry her.

Back before the reign of reality television had really gotten underway, flooding the airwaves and the unfortunate American consciousness with people famous for doing absolutely nothing worthwhile, To Die Forwas a sharp satire about a woman with the ultimate dream: to be famous no matter what the cost.

Suzanne charms the Marettos

Suzanne dreams of being a journalist without having to do the professional work necessary to earn that title.  She’s a small town girl who thinks she’s a sophisticate, with sharp talons for nails and perfectly frosted hair.   She wants to be Diane Sawyer, but lacks the class, not to mention the brains. She doesn’t realize this, of course, and her vain and laughable monologues regarding her virtues and talents provide the main comedic portions of the film.  She’s so awful that she’s sublime.  Suzanne isn’t smart enough to have a veneer or a mask.  She genuinely believes she’s destined for fame and worthy of its charms.   Van Sant frames the action with startling and intense mockumentary-style interviews with all of the major players in the story.  Suzanne has her own view of the tale, where she is the heroine.  Her sidekicks (and accomplices) and her husband’s family have an entirely different spin.

To Die For isn’t a mystery or a thriller; you know from the beginning what will happen and who the major players are.  Its success lies in the spinning of the web that will capture and destroy Suzanne.  You beg to see her meet her downfall.   She represents everything appalling about society and culture that you can possibly imagine.

the face of evil

Suzanne meets Larry Maretto, her future husband, when he is playing in the family restaurant in his small-time band.  She’s not exactly star struck, but she sees him and his comfortable income and latches on for dear life.  The Marettos are not thrilled with Suzanne, especially Larry’s observant and sharp sister, the ice-skater Janice (played by the always interesting Illeana Douglas).  Janice is the only person (other than the audience) who sees Suzanne for who she really is from the beginning.  

Eventually, life in the Marettos’ sterile and tacky townhouse becomes too mundane for Suzanne.  She insinuates herself into a job as the Little Hope weather girl  on the local cable access channel.  How she gets this job is one of the more genuinely funny moments in the movie.  The station manager tries to explain to Suzanne how very little Little Hope needs her.  She is oblivious, but she is also hard to deny.

Suzanne tries to insert her own brand of journalism into Little Hope, working on a pet project (designed mostly to deflect Larry’s increasing need for her to start adding to his big Italian family) called “Teens Speak Out”.  Suzanne thinks that quality journalism means sticking a camera in a teen’s face and asking them personal questions.   While the audience knows that this is not Emmy-winning material, to one end Suzanne’s work is resounding success.  She quickly makes minions out of three high school outsiders:  love-struck Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), starstruck Lydia (Allison Folland) and Russell, who has been forced to participate by the principal.

Suzanne loves the attention from her three new pets, and gradually manipulates them into believing the tragic fairy story she has concocted, where she is the damsel in distress and her husband Larry the ogre keeping her from her happy ending.   It doesn’t take much for her to become the center of the universe for these three teens.  Jimmy loves her so much that he becomes a slave to his own sexual urges.  For Lydia, Suzanne is the only adult who gives her any attention at all.  Russell just does what the other two do, of course.  He’s that guy.

in the spotlight

This all leads to the logical places.  Suzanne convinces Jimmy and Russell (and by proxy, Lydia) to murder Larry.  There is a moment after Larry’s death where Suzanne walks to her door and is prompted by the cops that she doesn’t have to face the media lurking outside.  Suzanne primps her hair and tries to look appropriately grieving.  This is her moment.  She steps out onto the porch and into the spotlight.

There is a sensational trial at which Suzanne ends up going free (ah, entrapment), leaving her accomplices Russell, Jimmy and Lydia to less satisfactory fates.  Still, Suzanne gets her comeuppance in a stunning final scene involving Larry’s family and a frozen pond. 

Nicole Kidman’s performance as Suzanne is an Oscar-worthy one.  She manages to make Suzanne contemptible, yet mesmerizing.  Her nuanced work here is leagues ahead of  her overpraised work in The Hours.  Allison Folland is equally charming as Lydia, is the most sympathetic character in the whole story.   The scene-stealer, however, is Illeana Douglas, who as Larry Maretto’s loyal and loving sister Janice gets all the great scathing lines, and even the last word.

Screenwriter Buck Henry, who based his script on the novel by Joyce Maynard, pens a swift and sweet satire with ease.  To Die For could easily be re-released today with the same punch and relevance it had over fifteen years ago. 

Overall, To Die For is a wry and engrossing dark comedy in the same league as Heathers in terms of long-lasting appeal and relevance.  The coda to the story says so much, as it is wide-eyed and clueless Lydia who ends up achieving a notion of the fame that Suzanne coveted.  Fame.  She’s a fickle lady.

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