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To Die For

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by Gus Van Sant.

Starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon,
Joachim Phoenix, Illeana Douglas

Written by Buck Henry, from a novel
by Joyce Maynard.

Poor Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Kidman). She's a girl who just wants to have fame. Her role models are Jane Pauley and Barbara Walters. And, according to Gus Van Sant's new film, To Die For, she has all the prerequisites necessary for success on television and in American society; stunning blond good looks, a nice family, a college education (well, okay, so it's a two-year community college education, but at least her intentions were good), and an egoism that borders upon megalomania. Any mention of her overweening ambition at this point would be superfluous; let's just say that she could teach the heroine in All About Eve several lessons in the art of being ruthless. If it weren't for the minor problems that keep plaguing her, such as her lack of intelligence, and the fact that she resides in Little Hope, New Hampshire -- a town so tiny that the networks probably don't know it exists, at least until Suzanne inadvertently puts it on the map. But the real problem, in Suzanne's opinion, is what she perceives to be the meddling of her in-laws in her marriage to husband Larry (Dillon). The Marettos are concerned about the effect that this socially-ambitious woman who disdains childbirth and family gatherings will have upon the cohesiveness of their blue-collar Italian-American clan. Determined to climb to a higher post than that of the (unpaid) weather girl on one of the local affiliates, Suzanne shoots hundreds of hours of tape in the quest to assemble a documentary on the future of contemporary youth. Her representatives might best be described as three products of dysfunctional childrearing, drug use, and intellectual and financial deprivation -- picture a lumpy prole version of the children in Village of the Damned and you get the general idea. In the midst of this not-so magnum opus, Suzanne receives the news from her no-longer-beloved hubby that she has probably reached the extent of her ambitions. Not liking the sound of the word "no" very much, Suzanne, with the help of her three new friends, decides to do something about him. She has even taken on one of the young boys, James (Phoenix), as her lover to assist him in getting over his squeamishness about a little thing like shooting a woman's husband.

Despite the rather grim synopsis, the film is actually rather funny -- provided you don't think too much about it. The film is at its best when it subtly satirizes some of the greater issues confronting American society, among them the much-vaunted "melting pot" theory of multiculturalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Suzanne's relationship with her in-laws The cultural difference between them is insurmountable; while Suzanne hears the pages on her Day-Timer flipping by, along with her future, the Marettos hear the ticking of her biological clock. Yet, for all of the satire contained in To Die For, the film seems suspiciously weak at the core. Other audiences apparently spotted this weakness; according to the director, the film was re-edited twice after failed press screenings before its triumphant debut at Cannes and the Seattle International Film Festival last spring.

Unfortunately, the problem is not one that lends itself to yet another vigorous application of the scissors, because it rests at the level of the script, and primarily in the main character. Ms. Stone-Maretto's behavior is attributed to a combination of blind egoism and stupidity that borders on the psychopathic. The problem with such a character construction is the difficulty one has in believing that someone so stupid could actually hatch any sort of murderous scheme with any hope of a successful follow-through; after all, the concept of a stupid psychopath is a contradiction in terms. What this contradiction does is to undermine the necessary links between character, motivation and narrative; for example, the audience, given Suzanne's ruthless nature, should rightfully deduce that Suzanne's choice of this particular group of teenage losers as the subject for her documentary is derived from intelligent calculation, or, rather, it would be an intelligent assumption, if cues in the narrative had provided clues earlier as to her murderous intent. But Suzanne's intention to kill comes about after the taping has begun. Further to this point, Suzanne's interviewing technique is inanely sincere; no tongue-in-cheek intended, she honestly seems to believe that this intellectually-deprived and imagination-starved group of teenagers would share her upwardly-mobile, middle-class values. The satirical intent is obvious, but the contradiction leaves the audience in confusion as to whether she is really malevolent, or merely stupid and lucky. The result leaves poor Nicole Kidman in the unenviable position of a skater attempting to do a double axle on an ever-shifting patch of ice, and since ninety-five-per-cent of the film is filtered though her narration, the satire is blunted. Fortunately, Kidman's performance is strong enough to allow her to grab an edge and stay upright, but the script has let her down badly. What should have been an Oscar-caliber performance at times becomes the cinematic equivalent of life support.

More unforgivable is the film's use, or, rather, misuse, of black humor; the film pulls punches when it shouldn't, as if self-consciousness over the implications of treating such taboo subjects as adultery and the murder of a husband with mockery had taken over. This discomfort with the extremist approach of black humor seems to be an enduring trend within American film; it is no coincidence that the best practitioners of black humor in American film have either been foreign-born (Chaplin with Monsieur Verdoux) or have worked outside Hollywood (Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove). Part of the problem, if one wanted to speculate, would have to do with the fact that black humor, at its best, consists of putting a society's most sacred cows though a meat grinder while they are still alive, then serving the still-quivering steak tartare to the horrified spectators with absolute indifference to the audience's plight, pausing only to crack an egg over the top. By and large, Americans aren't overly fond of barbecuing their icons. Given Van Sant's track record of injecting a humorous edge into taboo subjects like drug addiction (Drugstore Cowboy), and Buck Henry's reputation as a satirist (co-creator of TV's Get Smart), one might expect more from this film. Unfortunately, the narrative loses its edge, as it shifts its focus from Suzanne's ambition to an almost sympathetic tone for James' plight. Part of the problem stems from Phoenix's exquisitely measured performance; little by little, as his character passes from ignorance through joy and finally to a state of barely-comprehending sorrow, Phoenix forces the audience to identify with James rather than to sneer at him. In the final sequence in which the audience hears from James, Phoenix's body seems to contract before the audience's eyes, as if he wants to escape from all prying eyes, and the camera facilitates that change by capturing him in ever-increasing close-ups, as if James were a wild animal caught within the range of a high-powered scope. The final shot of him is a medium-long shot, emphasizing his vulnerability and hopelessness. In another type of film, this shift in identification would be exactly right; in black comedy, so reliant upon maintaining distance between subject and audience, it is the worst possible change in tone for a director and/or screenwriter to permit. This slackness in spirit translates to the ending of the film; not even the use of Donovan's Season of the Witch under the end credits can undo the damage.

To Die For is worth seeing if only to witness the performances of Kidman and Phoenix, and to speculate on what might have been if the film hadn't wanted so much to be liked.

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