Suzanne Stone is the kind of person who believes that you’re a someone as long as you’re a someone on TV. If on television, she reasons, you’re more likely to be a good person. But we wouldn’t want everyone to be on the small screen — then we’d have no one left to watch.
Suzanne's a big fan of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, though not for their work. She's instead infatuated with their importance, their fame. She wants to be like them, reporting all the biggest news stories while wearing Donna Karan and giving the camera a pink lipsticked smile which could kill.
Suzanne lives in the small town of Little Hope, New Hampshire (an ironic setting, no?), where most have settled and started families or otherwise are getting their rocks off at sports bars and strip malls. It is not a place to develop a big name, but Suzanne, all her life, has dreamt of becoming famous — only recently has she decided that such a pursuit will be best suited for the role of Barbara Walters-type news reporter.
While nothing’s wrong with a little ambition, Suzanne's delusional: she's a dimwit who believes that she’s intelligent and inquisitive, the smartest person in the room, if you will. In reality, she’s a narcissist with unfortunate confidence. She'll never be Katie Couric, no, but so much as tell her that and you might land yourself in a great deal of danger.
Suzanne is a gold mine of a character. And To Die For, told with mockumentary panache, is a spectacular television satire whose success immeasurably depends on the believability of her sheer ridiculousness. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal, combined with the scathing nature of Buck Henry’s characterization, is enough to make her an iconic figure of Phyllis Dietrichson villainy gone severely wrong.
The events of the film are mostly told in flashback. We discover that Suzanne, a tabloid figure by the movie’s start, hired a trio of severely idiotic teenagers (Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, Casey Affleck) to kill her restauranteur husband (Matt Dillon), who, pre-marriage, was handsome and nice, but, after a while, turned out to be handsome enough, nice enough, and certainly not the kind of spouse who could handle Suzanne’s future success, or so she thinks. He was an obstacle standing in the way of her becoming Ricki Lake’s biggest rival, and divorce is something which can tarnish the reputation of a rising journalist. Interviews unravel and characterize her either as a manipulative sexpot or a guardian angel for the ages. I suppose you can guess which parties look at her as what.
To Die For is the film equivalent of a tabloid scandal; watching it is akin to paging through the National Enquirer and skimming through the latest details of the Monica Lewinsky fuss, the Long Island Lolita rager, the OJ Simpson trial. But it is told in a way which looks down upon its most foolhardy characters, finding entertainment in their stupidity instead of trying to find extra juicy details underneath all the muck which surrounds them.
We have a feeling that screenwriter Buck Henry has met buffoons like these before, perhaps more innocent in their antics but just as self-satisfying and bafflingly ignorant all the same. Suzanne is a woman who borderlines on being a caricature, but Henry never lets us doubt that such a reckless person exists; similarly, Jimmy (Phoenix) and Lydia (Folland) are punishingly dimwitted, slacker teen cartoons until the ending turns them into something resembling humans.
At the time of To Die For's conception, Gus Van Sant, one of cinema’s riskiest directors, was recovering from the commercial and critical slump of 1994’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues at the time. And To Die For, so cynical and darkly humorous, is the kind of satirical masterpiece as deft as Network and as unabashedly insane as Sunset Boulevard, making for a definitive if odd comeback special. If it’s a return to form, then it must be the movie equivalent of Elvis’s 1969 reappearance — here is one of the best films of the 1990s, following one of the worst.
Here, Van Sant pairs purposely artificial set design (think Far From Heaven meets a ‘90s sitcom) with edgy musical and tonal manuvers. (Picture a Brady Bunch special paired with the music of Babes in Toyland.) His artistic values are a keen fit for Henry’s caustic screenplay, all the while idolizing a superb Kidman without letting her performance cloud the storytelling strengths everywhere else.
To Die For is the sort of film which gets buried in the hype of a decade, terrific but largely forgotten, like Freeway or Jackie Brown. Regardless, it’s something to cherish — its brilliant, blackened, and bruising laughs are convincing, easy, and, surprisingly,