Directed by Gus VanSant

Starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix

"To Die For"

Opened: October 6, 1995 | Rated: R

Suzanne Stone is congenial, vapid and unrelentingly ambitious when it comes to her television career.

Even though she's only the weather girl at a New England public access cable station, she's convinced she is could have Barbara Walters' job any minute now and nothing is going to stop her.

So when her husband has the nerve to suggest that she start thinking realistically there's nothing to do but to kill him.

In Gus Van Sant's biting black comedy "To Die For," Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone like a Meg Ryan character with a black soul -- saccharin sweet candy outside, sour grapes inside.

The story of Suzanne's rise to stardom as a tabloid murderess is told in a disjointed chronology. Some scenes are deliberately out of order to amplify the irony when the film backtracks to show earlier events.

A frenzied sex scene between Suzanne and her husband (Matt Dillon), is followed by what happened just before -- Suzanne being beckoned to the casting couch by a TV executive. When we're shown the sex scene a second time, Suzanne's in-the-mood attitude becomes a ironic chuckle.

This technique adds to the ever-present undertone of television's influence -- it's like rewinding the scene on your VCR and watching it again from another perspective. The murder scene even jumps back and forth, like someone changing channels, between the murder and the TV studio where Suzanne is doing the weather.

From the opening credits, a montage of mass media images from the story we're about to see, the film is saturated with Suzanne's shallow tunnel vision.

Her obsession with being a star drives her to have Maria Shriver's wedding veil copied so she can wear the same style for her nuptials.

Suzanne says "Cut! Cut! Cut!" when she interrupts a conversation. And she unflinchingly tells the camera her philosophy on life: "What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody is watching?"

Various characters narrate the story in bits and pieces as they are interviewed on TV.

Suzanne's and her husband's parents appear on a talk show, and Suzanne herself guides the audience through much of the film by way of her videotaped pitch for a TV movie.

Joaquin Phoenix (the late River Phoenix's brother) is the teenage moron Suzanne seduces into committing the murder, who tells the story of the crime in a prison interview.

Phoenix is terrific as a hopeless trailer park teen who couldn't match wits with Bevis and Butthead.

Written by Buck Henry ("The Graduate," "Catch 22"), who has always had a brilliantly cynical edge, these characters and especially the dialogue ring so true of the talk show-trained 1990s American numbskull that "To Die For" doesn't seem far fetched at all. Just funny.

The irony surrounding "To Die For" goes beyond the screen, too. In the novel by Joyce Maynard on which the movie is based, Suzanne says when they make a movie of her life she wants "that girl who married Tom Cruise" to play her.

Knock on wood. It was the right choice.

This review appeared in the Daily Republic, Fairfield, CA.

©1995 All Rights Reserved.

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