To Die For Review

“You’re not anyone in America unless you’re on TV.” Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) is a weathergirl on local television in Little Hope, New Hampshire. But she has bigger plans for herself: much bigger. And armed with more determination than actual talent, she’s going to get there and nothing will stand in her way. Not even her husband Larry (Matt Dillon).

To Die For - which is nothing to do with the 1994 British gay comedy directed by Peter Mackenzie Litten, nor indeed the 1989 horror film from Deran Serafian – is one of the peaks of Gus Van Sant’s intriguing if erratic career. Van Sant began his career in the world of low-budget indies, particularly attracting attention with his second and third features, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Studios and bigger budgets beckoned, though there were as many misses as hits. To Die For followed the commercial and critical bomb that was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues but was followed in its turn by Van Sant’s greatest commercial success to date, Good Will Hunting. Since then his career has switchbacked. His scene-by-scene remake of Psycho was reviled by many, though I found it an interesting failure. Finding Forrester seemed bland and conventional to many, which I can neither agree or disagree with as I haven’t seen it. Since then, Van Sant has gone back to his indie roots, adopting the long-take style of Hungarian Béla Tarr in such films as Gerry, the Cannes winner Elephant and Last Days.

Clearly Van Sant can blunder into self-importance and pretentiousness. To Die For sees a largely restrained Van Sant, who is all the better for it. Given a script by Buck Henry (who also appears in the film) that at times is sharp enough to sever an artery, Van Sant gets on with telling his story. He uses an antichronological structure, beginning with Suzanne’s arrest for Larry’s murder, and tells the story in a jigsaw of flashbacks and docu-style straight-to-camera interviews from the major characters. Van Sants restricts himself to a few flourishes intended to get us inside Suzanne’s head: a slow-motion, set-to-music exit worthy of Norma Desmond, and a late scene where paparazzi question her and all she hears is applause. The use of music is worthy of note too: there’s a memorable scene where Suzanne dances in the car headlights to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” is the ideal song to play over the end credits.

Given this strong foundation, the film boasts several standout performances. Nicole Kidman won a Golden Globe but astonishingly failed to gain so much as an Oscar nomination. She’s pitch perfect in the role, a whiter-than-white smile disguising her character’s combination of ruthlessness and vacuity. Matt Dillon has a sweet puppydog trustfulness as Larry, while as Larry’s sister Janice, who sees through Suzanne from the start, Illeana Douglas shows herself to be a fine, much undervalued actress. The three not-so-bright youngsters Suzanne recruits were breakthrough roles for Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland (her debut). There’s dependable support as ever from Dan Hedaya, and a creepy cameo towards the end from David Cronenberg.

When this film was made, celebrity culture was on the rise, and twelve years on it’s still very much with us. To Die For is just as relevant as it ever was, and it’s sharp, entertaining and blackly funny as well.

To Die For arrives on DVD via Network as part of the Rank (later Carlton) library. (Rank coproduced the film.) It’s a single-layered disc in PAL format, encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.

The original aspect ratio is 1.85:1: the DVD is 1.78:1, slightly windowboxed on all four sides, and anamorphically enhanced. This isn’t an especially short film, even when you take into account the fairly brief extras: even so, you suspect a second DVD layer would have benefited the transfer, which is too soft and lacking in fine detail for my liking.

To Die For was made in the early years of digital cinema sound: according to the end credits it was released in Sony’s proprietary SDDS format, as well as Dolby SR. We get a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix on this DVD, though as a sound mix goes, it’s pretty much front and centre, with the surrounds largely being given over to music and the occasional directional effect.

Extras are rather basic: a commentary from any combination of Gus Van Sant, Nicole Kidman or Buck Henry would have been a great bonus. As it is, we have the UK trailer (2:18, complete with the BBFC’s “PG trailer for 15 film” card), four TV spots and a self-navigating stills gallery (1:44).

I’d good to have To Die For available on DVD, if only as a corrective to the idea that fame for the sake of it is a desirable goal – leaving aside such minor items as actual talent and ability. However, you can’t help feeling this disc, while certainly adequate, could have been better.

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out of 10

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