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TO DIE FOR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Damon, Illeana Douglas
Director:  Gus Van Sant
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer , Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  November 10, 1998

Film ****

As the trailer for the film boldly proclaims, "welcome to the REAL America".  To Die For is a black comedy that shamelessly holds a mirror up to our society and forces to take a long look at the truths about ourselves we'd rather not think about.  It is not a movie with an identity crisis, as some critics have suggested.  It's a film that knows exactly what it's doing at all times.  It doesn't "lose" its comic edge near the end, it simply shows us that the things we take for entertainment are often horribly real and painful.

The film plays out mostly in flashbacks, and from the point of view of a TV camera of unknown source that's interviewing the people involved in the story concerning the events we're about to see.  Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, an ambitious woman with her heart, mind and eyes firmly set on a television career.  "You're not anybody in this country unless you're on TV," she claims.  Though her job as a small town weather “girl” is small potatoes, to her it's everything, and a stepping stone to a wondrous world she's dreamed of all her life.

But life isn't always like it appears on TV. She begins to see a problem with her husband (Matt Dillon).  They've been married almost a year, and though he's a sweet guy, he's a little too grounded in reality for her tastes.  His only ambition is to run his family's restaurant with his wife by his side, and have a couple of kids.  In Suzanne's world, these things just aren't heard of.

The plot thickens when a couple of out of place high school kids, especially a confidence lacking, lovestruck boy (Phoenix) become pawns in her sinister plan to get rid of her husband.  The murder is a real turning point in the feel and mood of the picture.  It's the kind of thing we see on TV and read about in magazines all the time, the kind of thing our society obsesses over.  The thing is, though, once the trigger is pulled, there are very real and devastating effects for all around and involved, and suddenly we as the audience feel a certain shame in our love for the seedy and macabre, especially as the point of view returns to the filming camera and we realize what we're seeing are very real people who were hurt by a very real tragedy.  Now, watching this film on the other side of the O. J. trials, I began to realize this film was even smarter than I originally thought.

The cast is great across the board.  Phoenix plays his character to unsure and emotional perfection throughout, and Matt Dillon, who's always good, brings a sense of grounded reality to a likeable character in a small role. I also liked Illeana Douglas' role as his somewhat cynical sister.

But, make no mistake, this movie belongs to Nicole Kidman.  Her portrayal of Suzanne is one of the best acting jobs I've seen in the nineties. Her Suzanne is always on, as though every moment of her day she were on camera.  When she speaks to people, there's almost a sense of pity toward them that these people don't understand just how things work in the TV oriented world.  She's the kind of character that may seem like an airhead on the surface, when in fact, she just simply doesn't pay much mind to anything outside of her own little microcosm.  You can always see the wheels turning just under the surface, though.  Nicole Kidman's accent is so good, you will forget you're watching a native Australian.  It's enough to make you wonder why there haven't been more meaty roles for her like this one.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific anamorphic transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  Images are sharp and crisply defined throughout, with no grain or compression evident, and natural looking, beautifully rendered coloring throughout.  The print is quite clean, with very little in the way of noticeable scars and blemishes. 

Audio **1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is a serviceable but unspectacular mix, as this is a mostly dialogue-driven film.  I didn't notice much use of the surrounds or the .1 channel, but then again, I didn't miss them very much, either.

Features *

Only a trailer, but it’s one of my favorite trailers.  The use of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” is a nice touch.

Summary:

To Die For remains one of the best and most topical black comedies of the 90’s.  Anchored by a star making performance by Nicole Kidman, this is a film that will make you laugh loudly, think hard, and remember the old adage that it’s only funny until somebody gets hurt.