TO DIE FOR B+
USA Great Britain (106 mi) 1995 d: Gus van Sant
What's the point in doing something good if nobody's watching?
—Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman)
—Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman)
DEAD CALM (1989) introduced a young 22-year old Nicole Kidman to movie screens, but it’s her outrageous performance as a celebrity obsessed small town television wannabe in Gus van Sant’s TO DIE FOR that introduced her to the world and remains her most stunning performance in her much heralded career. Kidman’s range is impressive as she wears so many hats in this film (and stunning outfits) that it seems like she suffers from personality disorder, but what she’s really doing is introducing a character that is literally performing all the time, in every situation she finds herself, just hoping for that rare opportunity of being discovered and becoming a TV star. It’s all she ever thinks about as van Sant presents this film in overlapping layers, beginning with the montage of tabloids that have a field day with photographs of Suzanne Stone, this glamorous woman who is suspected to have been involved in the murder of her husband, which is seen in the beginning of the film, so everything that’s shown afterwards is seen in flashback, like the renowned structure for Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE (1945). Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, the film is unofficially based on the story of Pamela Smart, a 23-year old New Hampshire schoolteacher who conspired with several teenagers to murder her husband and was tried and convicted in 1991, currently serving a life sentence. Given a different twist by screenwriter Buck Henry, it does maintain the narrative stream-of-conscious sound bite commentary by several different characters offering their views on Suzanne. Initially Suzanne herself is seen speaking directly to the camera from an unidentified room, which has a modern subtext to it, as the audience hasn’t a clue who she’s speaking to, or under what circumstances. Her comments continue throughout the film, though, interjected with comments by a few others from her town in New Hampshire who are offering their opinions about what kind of person she is. These all have a man-on-the-street feel to them, as the speakers are relaxed, talking in familiar settings, and not holding back their real feelings as they speak candidly to the camera.
Kidman is seen as a pampered Barbie-like beauty queen who’s used to having her way, something of a socialite who is trying everything she can to be noticed, as she’s amazingly ambitious, a woman who has had her career mapped out in front of her since childhood. She marries the cutest guy in town, Matt Dillon as Larry, who works in his father’s bar and also plays drums for a local bar band, which is where Suzanne stands out from the rest, all decked out in a provocatively skimpy outfit so Larry can’t take his eyes off of her, even after they get married, where her dreams of becoming a TV celebrity couldn’t make him prouder. But instead she gets a job at a nickel and dime local cable channel that just needs someone to run errands from time to time. But she keeps pitching ideas for the station to run, which they deny, becoming so persistent that the 2-man operation is eventually worn down and put her on the air as the weather lady, where she begins pitching ideas from that forum, one of which is a documentary photo shoot with local high school kids, who are seen as little more than deadbeats. Always good at discovering new talent, this is Casey Affleck’s first screen appearance, playing a smart mouthed juvenile delinquent, also Alison Folland who plays the mildly overweight girl with no friends that is continually made fun of, while Joaquin Phoenix is given his first major role in his fourth film, playing a completely alienated high school kid whose sullen nature leaves him largely strung out and disconnected from reality. All three have a crush on Suzanne, always wearing killer outfits, where their teenage hormones are simply aroused by her open sense of sexual provocation. In contrast, these kids wear drab indistinguishable sweat gear, but these are the kids who agree to be in the movie, and despite working on this film day and night, it’s clear there’s no substance to it as these kids have nothing to say. Instead, it may be a front for other ambitions.
When Larry suggests Suzanne give up the Hollywood dream and come work in the bar with him, it’s as if she has a Stepford wife moment, where she coolly doesn’t reveal what she really thinks, but she finds this insult so personally degrading that she really has no use for her husband any more after that, where instead he needs to be removed as an obstruction to her path of achieving success. Suzanne is simply not a woman who takes no for an answer, eventually plotting behind the scenes with these teen kids to have him removed from the picture. Larry is right, however, as she is so determined and single-mindedly sure of herself, rock solid in her belief in herself, yet has nothing to show for it. Her pathetic attempts to manipulate a few socially disconnected teenage kids borders on pandering and sexual indecency, perhaps even rape, but they’re not the types that go running to the authorities. Besides, they’re delusionally inclined to think she’s a cool adult who may actually have some interest in them. The way this all plays out has a unique feel to it, as the sick sarcasm is so pronounced, at moments hilarious, yet darkly disturbing the next, like the sequence when Suzanne receives the news of her husband’s death, making a beeline to the awaiting reporters as the television plays “The Star Spangled Banner,” where it’s as if she’s performing a screen test. It intentionally makes the audience feel uncomfortable, where their more mature perceptions will not likely match those of adolescent teenage kids who every day are the targets of every advertising campaign across the nation, where they have yet to establish individual identities, as they’re still so confused at being bought, sold, and influenced through the market place. David Cronenberg makes a somber, late appearance in the movie, but his actions are disturbingly decisive.