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To Die For

by Charlie Largent Mar 30, 2024

To Die For
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
Criterion
1995
Starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Illeana Douglas
Written by Buck Henry
Photographed by Eric Alan Edwards
Directed by Gus Van Sant

A wide-eyed kewpie doll with the disposition of Lady Macbeth, Suzanne Stone’s only friend is the lens of a television camera—when the green light is on, so is she. But while that camera is expert at capturing her skin-deep beauty, it also exposes her scorpion-like nature to more attentive audiences, like the local police for instance. Director Gus Van Sant leads us into the hall of mirrors that is To Die For, a cut-throat farce about the rise and fall of an All American sociopath.

Suzanne is a tireless robotrix who operates in just two modes, “Charm School” and “Demon Spawn”—she’s forged that unholy alliance with the camera because she believes “you’re not really anybody unless you’re on TV.” And the camera loves her back—it’s a match made in heaven, but it’s headed for Sing Sing. Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne and the actress shares her character’s supernatural prowess in seducing a camera. But Kidman uses her powers for good. Suzanne definitely does not, she regards the human race as cogs in her escalator to fame and if she gets a little blood on her hands, so what?

Suzanne lives in the appropriately named Little Hope, New Hampshire. Too appropriate, in fact—that on-the-nose gag is one of the few missteps in Buck Henry’s brilliant script, a howler that manages to be both outrageous and nuanced. Henry uses the northeast town’s perennially icy condition as a reflection of Suzanne’s personality and a harbinger of her fate. Illeana Douglas plays Janice Maretto who has some experience with frozen surfaces herself, she’s Suzanne’s ice-skating sister-in-law and she’s able to describe her nemesis in one word: “It begins with ‘C’.” Janice takes a beat before the punchline: “Cold.” Well played, Janice.

Janice has good reason to hate Suzanne’s guts, she watched from the sidelines as her brother Larry, not the sharpest tool in the shed, was taken to the cleaners by this baby-faced beauty who fast-tracked their engagement with head-spinning speed. Matt Dillon plays Larry Maretto to a T and with his royal profile aligned alongside Kidman’s, they enjoy a fairy tale wedding—the King and Queen of Little Hope—even though the ceremony concludes with the bridesmaids ducking for their lives when Suzanne tosses her bouquet.

That wedding is but the first step in Suzanne’s ascension to trend-setting socialite and broadcast powerhouse in the tradition of Jane Pauley, a role model for the profoundly racist Suzanne who admires Pauley’s small town appeal and alabaster skin; “She doesn’t have an ethnic bone in her body.” There are few options for a hard workin’ reporter in this tiny burg but the towering blonde bulldozes her way into a job at a cable access station and through sheer gonzo willpower, self-promotes herself to weather girl. But what she really wants is a shot at the kind of glamorous muckraking that put Woodward and Bernstein on the map and in the movies.

Armed with video camera and no ideas to speak of, Suzanne invades Little Hope High School in search of students to take part in a documentary called “Teens Speak Out.” She seizes on three of the homeroom’s most malleable malcontents, Jimmy Emmett, played by Joaquin Phoenix, Russell Hines, played by Casey Affleck, and Lydia Mertz, played by Alison Folland. Though Van Sant and Henry’s methods might seem as cold-blooded as Suzanne’s, they give that threesome a real poignance—thanks in no small part to the actors’s pitch-perfect performances. The trio’s hard knock home lives have taught them to be suspicious of anyone seemingly smart or monied, but no one says “no” to Suzanne, not even her husband. The first time Larry uses the word, Suzanne reacts as if she’d been felled by a tranquilizer dart.

Larry wants her to quit her job and work at his father’s restaurant. But Suzanne would rather quit Larry. As that other Wicked Witch said, “These things must be handled delicately”, and that’s where the extremely horny Jimmy comes in. Suzanne used all of her wiles—mainly her legs—to seduce the teenaged trio but when she gets the bright idea to enlist them in her murder plans, she seduces Jimmy for real. He doesn’t know what hit him, but gosh Mrs. Maretto, it sure feels good.

Suzanne treats the aftermath of Larry’s murder like a press junket; she poses prettily for reporters at the scene of the crime, and at the funeral the Black Widow makes her regal entrance, plants a boom box on Larry’s tombstone, and invites the crowd to her pity party—let the mourning begin. As Eric Carman’s All By Myself echoes through the cemetery, it’s clear to the assembled throng who they really should be feeling sorry for.

The rapid arrest of Jimmy and Russell (“…as career criminals, you guys flunk out of kindergarten”) underscores a recurring theme in To Die For; a good number of Little Hope’s community are not playing with a full deck. And Henry’s script is gleefully unapologetic about condemning them for their stupidity. These are the same rubes that the New York Times has been interviewing in diners for the past eight years, and while Van Sant and Henry go after the pitfalls of celebrity, their movie is equally scathing toward a media that nurtures those celebrities, and does their best to insure the public obsesses over the inevitable soap opera. In that sense, To Die For will remain relevant for the foreseeable future (god help us).

The film is immaculately produced: Danny Elfman’s score tickles us while creeping us out (shades of Beetlejuice), Pablo Ferro’s striking title sequence, a parade of tabloid headlines and pull-quotes, is a standalone newsroom critique, and Eric Alan Edwards’s cinematography is shockingly beautiful—the film was shot in Ontario but Edwards does a splendid job of suggesting the beautiful desolation of the New England sea coast—at moments his work resembles Sven Nykvist’s landscapes for Bergman.

Their work shines on Criterion’s new release which features a new 4K restoration approved by Van Sant and Edwards along with a 5.1 surround mix that gooses Elfman’s score to the limit. Extras are on the sparse side, a feature length commentary featuring Van Sant, Edwards, and editor Curtiss Clayton, and a series of deleted scenes. Inside the keep case is an essay by film critic Jessica Kiang.

Here’s Illeana Douglas on To Die For:

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Chas Speed

One of the greatest endings in movie history!!

Jenny Agutter fan

The first Gus Van Sant movie that I ever saw in the theater.

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[…] Sort of a wild card in the mix is Catherine’s umarried brother Nicky (Michael Rispoli of  To Die For), a war veteran with emotional issues brought back from combat in the Pacific. Nicky is obsessed […]

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