October 6, 1995 in Seven

Satirical Kidman Is ‘To Die For’

Dan Webster Staff Writer
 

The name Gus Van Sant on a movie credit is as likely to keep some people away as it is to attract others. Some people just don’t like his themes (drug-taking robbers in “Drugstore Cowboy,” narcoleptic street hustlers in “My Own Private Idaho”).

Others just don’t like his personal sense of aesthetics (including the Shakespeare section of “Idaho” but probably embodied by the entire mess called “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”).

Up until now, Van Sant’s films have reveled in their low-budget, independent origins, both in the rough ways they were made and in the alternative worlds they portray. But only up until now.

Because “To Die For” is another case altogether.

First, the film represents the first, well-rounded performance by Nicole Kidman in an American film (she was, actually, quite good in the Australian film “Flirting”).

Second, “To Die For” is a slickly savage look at contemporary life and the power of the media manipulators all around us.

One such would-be manipulator is Suzanne Stone (Kidman), a fresh-faced, airheaded, ambitious, devious and ultimately deadly young woman who sees herself as the next Jane Pauley (only, as she says, without the “weight problem”).

Suzanne ends up married to Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who toils at his family’s restaurant while she toils at the local cable-access channel attempting to win a reputation as a weather reporter, newscaster and all-around personality.

And it is that last persona that she most craves. Because the point of Buck Henry’s screenplay is not the doing of something to make yourself famous; it is the being famous that is important, no matter what the price.

So when Suzanne decides Larry is in her way, he has to go. And what better way to take him out than to manipulate the egos of a trio of high-school grunge wannabes? Of the three, Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix) seems to be the most likely trigger-man, and so he attracts the lion’s share of Suzanne’s attention.

A poignant moment comes when Jimmy, faced with evidence to the contrary, insists that Suzanne really loves him. Really.

But we know he is only kidding himself. Suzanne has decided that being famous, even infamous, is far better than being a nonentity. “You’re nothing,” she says, “if you’re not on television.”

In shooting Henry’s script, Van Sant proves to be more energized than he has been in years, maybe ever. “To Die For” uses a virtual menu of popular references, from Nancy Kerrigan’s knee-smashing to Oprah-Ricki-Geraldo-type talk shows. The whole film, in fact, is set up as an audition piece of Suzanne’s to some unnamed corporate entity.

And there are some amazing sequences. Suzanne walking slo-mo toward television lights as the national anthem blares in the background. Drug-addled Phoenix (River’s baby brother) admitting his guilt. A young girl’s (played by Allison Folland) growing awareness that Suzanne is seducing Jimmy.

Most of all, though, Van Sant gives us Kidman as Suzanne, talking to the camera, trying desperately to show a lecherous veteran newsman that she’s brighter than she seems (even though she isn’t), making love to Jimmy, auditioning for a job, etc.

There are other decent acting jobs here. Van Sant seems always able to do what most other directors fail spectacularly at, namely, coax a believable performance from Dillon (who played the lead in “Drugstore Cowboy”). Phoenix may just be a major find, and Ileana Douglas (who plays Dillon’s sister) has been good in the few roles that she’s won (most memorable: “Cape Fear”).

But it is Kidman whom the camera loves most. She is perfect as the media-hungry creature of culture who, hip-twisting to an inner heat, symbolizes the need to be seen. Hips and other physical attributes aside, she is the hungry version of all who unashamedly bare all for the Oprahs, Rickis and Geraldos in a desperate grab for their 15 minutes.

And Van Sant’s cameras are there to play out her hunger before us.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “To Die For” ***-1/2 Location: Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Gus Van Sant (from a script by Buck Henry), starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Illeana Douglas, Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck Running time: 1:43 Rating: R

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “To Die For:” Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: When is a psycho not a psycho? When he or she is a TV “personality.” That is the joke at the heart of “To Die For,” the blackly comic collaboration of director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry that is sure to garner an Oscar nomination for its star, Nicole Kidman. Bob Thomas/Associated Press: Kidman, sometimes overlooked because of husband Tom Cruise, dominates the movie with a stunning performance. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: A smart black comedy that skewers America’s fatal fascination with television and celebrity, it employs an unerring nasty touch to parody our omnipresent culture of fame.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “To Die For” ***-1/2 Location: Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Gus Van Sant (from a script by Buck Henry), starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Illeana Douglas, Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck Running time: 1:43 Rating: R

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “To Die For:” Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: When is a psycho not a psycho? When he or she is a TV “personality.” That is the joke at the heart of “To Die For,” the blackly comic collaboration of director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry that is sure to garner an Oscar nomination for its star, Nicole Kidman. Bob Thomas/Associated Press: Kidman, sometimes overlooked because of husband Tom Cruise, dominates the movie with a stunning performance. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: A smart black comedy that skewers America’s fatal fascination with television and celebrity, it employs an unerring nasty touch to parody our omnipresent culture of fame.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email