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‘To Die For’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995

Television brings out the best in people—or at least that's what Suzanne Stone believes. Like some High Priestess of the Holy Mother Tube, her faith in the sanctifying power of the video camera is absolute and unshakable. If only more people were on TV, she says, then there would be more good in the world. "Because, after all, what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if no one's watching?"

The heroine of Gus Van Sant's deadly funny media satire "To Die For," Suzanne is kind of like a cross between Diane Sawyer and Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro's celebrity-obsessed psychopath in Martin Scorsese's "King of Comedy." Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) isn't just evil with a human face—she's evil with a stunning face and body. That she will inevitably cash in on her assets and rise to electronic superstardom isn't an issue; it's just a question of when. And how.

And how is right, because, as Suzanne herself admits in the video she's making to pitch her story to Hollywood, the circumstances under which this Midwestern airhead has become known are anything but typical. Pertly facing the camera, Suzanne tells her audience about her marriage to Larry (Matt Dillon), a sweet-natured Italian boy who, at first, completely supports her quest for stardom. He tolerates her job as weather girl for a local cable station and the endless hours she spends on the documentary about teenagers that she believes will be her breakthrough.

After about a year of this nonsense, however, Larry tells Suzanne that he's ready to settle down into their real lives, have kids and do what families do. Hearing this sends a chill down Suzanne's spine. Instantly, she begins to cook up a plan to manipulate her teenage subjects into removing this impediment to her ambition. As he demonstrated in "Mala Noche," "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho," Van Sant knows a thing or two about teen angst, and the scenes in which Suzanne draws Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his scuzzy accomplices (Casey Affleck and Alison Folland) into her web of lust and murder are menacingly funny.

At the same time, however, they're also genuinely disturbing. Brilliantly written by Buck Henry, "To Die For" works on several levels. As a satire on the American obsession with celebrity and fame, the movie is nuanced and haunting. And for the most part, Van Sant keeps the tone chillingly light and ironic. But the movie is also a portrait of a certain kind of American girl. Not since Faye Dunaway's omnivorous executive in "Network" has naked ambition been put so vividly on display. Dressed in eye-terrorizing shades of purple and pink, Kidman makes Suzanne seem almost inhumanly self-absorbed. She always gets her way. When her boss says, "I pity the man who says no to you," she replies, in a half whisper, "No one ever has."

Naturally, Jimmy is no match for Suzanne, and watching her maneuver him and his friends into doing her dirty work is a bit like watching a child pulling the wings off a fly. But the movie's attitude toward these kids is curious. In a sense, they exist outside the movie's stylized, impersonal frame; Van Sant presents them as pitiable products of bad schools, broken homes, drugs and abuse. They follow Suzanne like sheep, and their victimization comes across with more emotion and conviction than the rest of the film.

The performances by these kids, too, seems somewhat out of sync. As Jimmy, Joaquin Phoenix (brother of River) is so tremulous and fragile that his compelling character distracts from Van Sant's neat satiric architecture. Still, "To Die For" is an entertaining, deftly intelligent bit of filmmaking. Though it may seem less individualistic, less personal than Van Sant's past work, you can feel his sensibility and his talent in every frame.

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