To Die For (1995)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Buck Henry
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Wayne Knight
Suzanne Stone is a manipulative, cunning, career-driven woman. She’s also a murderer. On its 25th anniversary, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For expresses clear and often uncomfortable connotations to grooming and abuse, and both cultural and societal roles imprinted on women pre-Millennium. Eager to get into television and quickly become a famous journalist, Suzanne Stone takes a job at a local TV station. Starting with a report on the kids of the local community, Suzanne befriends three teenagers and grooms them into killing her husband.
Gus Van Sant had already made a name for himself by the turn of the century, with directing credits for My Own Private Idaho (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997) and the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) sitting amongst his most memorable work, as well as book-to-film adaptations such as Mala Noche (1985) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993). To Die For is one of his strong list of 1990s releases, this film adapted from Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel which, in turn, is based on the Pamela Smart murder case of 1990.
Nicole Kidman is striking as Suzanne Stone, with her charming yet wicked smile and intense monologues into the camera. She holds herself and her character with grace, slowly and expertly progressing the façade that Suzanne carries through the narrative. It’s easy to be distracted by the iconic looks that the costume department created; putting To Die For up there with Elle in Legally Blonde and Cher in Clueless for delivering another embodiment of the stylish and unforgettable blonde bombshell.
Suzanne is, of course, the ultimate threat to the male-controlled entertainment industry of pre-2000. At a dinner meeting with a sleazy TV exec, Suzanne is told that she must be willing to do anything to get further in her career, while being touched inappropriately. Once she understands his meaning, her continuous motive becomes clear: that’s not how she’s going to do things. Suzanne then becomes the manipulator, demanding a job at the local TV station and working incredibly hard on her journalism, taking chances instead of asking for them. Initially, it presents a particularly empowering tone, until her actions become very clearly misguided and her relentless greed becomes apparent.
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) is only 20 in To Die For, but his talents are evidently boundless – it’s baffling to think that it’s only recently that he has become a household name. Taking on the role of James “Jimmy” Emmett, he quickly falls for Suzanne’s impressive looks and wholesome charm, starting a seemingly innocent relationship with her. Phoenix portrays Jimmy’s vulnerability effortlessly, his naivety blooming in such a childlike way that it makes Jimmy and Suzanne’s relationship all the more uncomfortable to witness. Suzanne grooms him and his friends, Lydia and Russell, to murder her husband, only to avoid them once the job is done and, further, verbally abuse them. Her manipulative and insulting tendencies are rather terrifying, yet Suzanne remains such a mesmerising character.
Ending somewhat comedically and certainly in a satisfying way that offers great closure, Van Sant’s direction and Elfman’s haunting soundtrack work in harmony to leave this disturbing narrative with something tangible and pure, quite the opposite of the fake and wishful world of television that Suzanne pursues.
On its 25th Anniversary, To Die For sits perfectly in the throngs of today’s culture; showing explicitly the drive and determination felt among women continuing to live in a man’s world. As a pair, Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix deservedly take the spotlight, but To Die For is a genuinely engaging and at times challenging film constructed with the same mastery apparent in Van Sant’s other work; a film that remains as watchable as ever.