Thursday, October 18, 2012

Good Gus Directing: "To Die For" (1995)

Nicole Kidman stars as a local television personality who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but it is Gus Van Sant's direction that really shines.

Kidman plays Suzanne, a none to bright woman who decides she wants to be a giant media personality. She marries Larry (Matt Dillon), a restaurateur, and settles for doing the weather at a dead end television station. Suzanne sees that Larry is not behind her career, and uses a trio of teens to kill him. She begins her plan by befriending them while shooting a documentary, then begins having sex with James (Joaquin Phoenix), who in turn conspires with Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland). Most of the film is told in flashback by the killers and families of Suzanne and Larry, and Suzanne herself.

"To Die For" is a strange film. Acting wise, the professional cast is saddled with some really one note characters. While top heavy with supporting players, Suzanne never really changes much, or offers enough menace to feel anything for her. Dillon fades into the background as Larry, trying to hard to make him normal.

Buck Henry's screenplay is full of fits and starts, never gathering enough darkness to become a successful dark comedy, nor enough satirical edge to become a successful satire. This is a shame, since celebrity due to murderous acts is such a part of our lives today (how many of you tuned into O.J. Simpson's latest round of "exclusive" interviews?). The film never takes that final step and calls the media on the carpet, instead trying to get the viewer caught up in the mechanics of Suzanne and Jim's relationship, and Suzanne's progressively strange certainty that she will be famous.

Gus Van Sant's direction is absolutely fantastic. The interior of Larry and Suzanne's home is hysterical. His camera always finds the perfect tone of a scene, even if the scene is not especially well written. I am one of the few who did not think much of "Drugstore Cowboy," although I do appreciate many of the films Van Sant has done since.

"To Die For" gets the viewer geared up for a no punches pulled look at popular culture today, then throws in the towel before the bell even rings. I cannot recommend it, despite the fine direction, the rest is strictly a disappointment. (* * *) out of five stars.