Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, and for Language
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Buck Henry
(based on the novel TO DIE FOR by Joyce Maynard)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya & Wayne Knight
TO DIE FOR, inspired by the insane true story of Pamela Smart, is a weird movie to say the least. Gus Van Sant takes the basis of a wicked crime and manipulative villainess, then adds a mockumentary approach that doesn’t quite mesh well with the story being told. A blending of darkly comedic elements, quirky stylistic choices, and a sinister edge make for an oddball little film that just happens to be inspired by a real-life sociopath. TO DIE FOR is unique, weird, and one-of-a-kind…but also a tonal mess.
Since her childhood, Suzanne Stone has always wanted to be the center of attention on TV. This goal-oriented, go-getter with delusions of grandeur won’t let anything get in the way of her career…and that includes her bartender husband who just wants to live a simple life as a restaurant owner with Suzanne by his side. Stone’s career as a small town weather girl and media consultant at a high school are not enough as she dreams of being a national news anchor for CNN. This leads her to recruit three teenagers to kill her husband which has unpredictable consequences for everyone involved.
Gus Van Sant’s mockumentary approach hinders TO DIE FOR’s tension in a lot of ways. We are told upfront through newspaper articles in the opening credits what Suzanne Stone has done and therefore nothing is left to be much of a surprise. The film too often focuses on unneeded “interviews” with the characters in which they talk about a scene and then we see that exact moment play out. It diffuses any ounce of good suspense that could have been built. I can’t help but imagine that TO DIE FOR might have played much better as a traditional narrative, but there’s also a scathing satirical view (about how the media sensationalizes crime and killers) that’s hard to ignore as well. Danny Elfman’s whimsical score works perfectly during key moments, but can also be very distracting. There are fantastic stylistic choices throughout in framing, colors, and a climactic scene that works flawlessly in spite of all the problems surrounding the rest of the film.
For every negative that can be said about TO DIE FOR, I don’t think anybody can fault Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance as the deluded narcissistic Suzanne Stone. If there’s one reason to watch this movie, it’s definitely Kidman’s portrayal of this sociopath woman with no identifiable moral compass and no problems in hurting other people to get her way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone else in this film feels like they’re from a totally different movie. Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland all play stereotypical dumb teenagers and that’s about it. Matt Dillon doesn’t do much to sell his nice guy husband, who comes off as an annoying idiot…which is probably not the direction that Van Sant originally hoped for. It helps if the viewer feels sympathy towards the victim in a murder case, even if that person wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. TO DIE FOR is populated by a whole lot of irritating characters with the exception of Kidman’s charismatic psycho-bitch.
TO DIE FOR left me with a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, the story here is really interesting. On the other, suspense is compromised multiple times by the mockumentary approach that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by the end of the film (there are a couple of plot holes). There’s a Danny Elfman score that works in some scenes, but ruins others. Nicole Kidman gives a stellar performance as a well-fleshed out femme fatale, but everyone else feels wooden or clichéd. Overall, TO DIE FOR is a severely mixed bag that’s worth watching once if you’re interested in this sort of thing.