TO DIE FOR 4K Review: This Film Kills

Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Casey Affleck commit murder for fame and sex in Gus Van Sant's frigid satire.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
TO DIE FOR 4K Review: This Film Kills

For most of its residents, the frigid burgh of Little Hope, New Hampshire can’t help but live up to its town’s moniker.  

A perpetually blah place with an unromantic blue collar frozen-in-time and also freezing quality, its denizens have been long resigned not to ask too much of life. Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

But not for Suzanne Stone-Maretto.  For this young, recently wed career-minded woman, her frigidity comes from within.  

Portrayed with an exacting edge by Nicole Kidman (transitioning here from “Mrs. Tom Cruise” to It girl and bold lead), Suzanne is a TV news devotee who idolizes famous on-air personalities yet lacks a personality of her own.  She imposes her pastel Easter egg aesthetic onto anyone in her perceived path to success, a path that will soon run red with spilled blood.  

Make no mistake, her aspirations lie far beyond her humble hometown.  For her, only a major network anchor position will do.  For everyone else in her life, there’s simply Little Hope.

Written by the great Buck Henry (co-writer of The Graduate, co-creator of Get Smart!), To Die For is intended as a high-minded dark satire of celebrity worship and media addiction.  Largely, it succeeds.  

Indie sensation Gus Van Sant (Drugstore CowboyMy Own Private Idaho) remains an interesting, perhaps unlikely, choice to direct the film.  Van Sant applies an unflinching, unwinking sardonic quality to what Henry pretty clearly intended as a more obvious comedy of bumbling criminals and exposing how shallow fame fixation is.  The director basically confirms as much on the disc’s audio commentary track.  

Immediately on said commentary (which also features director of photography Eric Alan and editor Curtiss Clayton, all recording together), Van Sant starts dishing out the kind of details that lawyers would quickly cut out of most commercial releases.  Before Pablo Ferro’s opening titles sequence is completed, we’re told that Mike Nichols tried to get Van Sant kicked off the project so he could direct it.  Sounds like an apropos plot, considering the movie’s story.  A little later, the director tells how aggressively Kidman went after the role of Suzanne, insisting she was destined for it… not at all unlike Suzanne herself.

Nicole Kidman is a Sirkian pastel nightmare, something between a calculating automaton and an obsessive femme fatale.  On the podcast Battleship Pretension, co-host Scott Nye recently declared To Die For as perhaps the only 90s erotic thriller with no nudity.  (Sex is central, but no nudity).  Kidman’s Suzanne, in her mounting efforts to seduce a couple of teenage boneheads (played by very young and very convincing Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck) into murdering her husband (Matt Dillon), is often incredibly sexy.  All the actors are excellent in the film, but without Kidman giving her 110%, To Die For would be a zero share.

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Suzanne’s dialogue is full of references to then-well-known newscasters and TV personalities, timestamping To Die For more thoroughly than the average movie.  In Van Sant’s hands, it is a camera-conscious film about a woman who only lives to be on camera.  And, she eventually gets her wish, doing the weather for a Podunk local station run by Wayne Knight.  

Ironically for Suzanne, it’s her family members who end up on the national talk show circuit.  (Her and her husband’s family members are portrayed by Illeana Douglas, Dan Hedaya, Maria Tucci, and Kurtwood Smith; a cast to die for, indeed).

The not-ordinary method in which the story is told, interjecting the plain old narrative stuff with interview footage (with manipulated delinquents Phoenix, Affleck, and Alison Folland) as well as Suzanne’s many direct-addresses, made for an unusual structure when it came out in 1995.  Clearly, Van Sant was already a student of Hitchcock before his infamous later remake of Psycho, as point-of-view storytelling and psychological visual flourishes course through the calcified veins of To Die For

Eventually, her husband’s death makes headlines.  On Suzanne’s living room TV, "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays at the end of another broadcast day.  Outside, the press and the police have fully descended upon her home.  In dreamy slo-mo, she makes her way to the front door and into the spotlights, Norma Desmond style.  A trial ensues, and Suzanne gets her wish: she’s not only on TV, she’s now famous.  Beyond that, To Die For might just have the most Cronenberg-ian ending of any film -- but not like that.

There is an astonishing lack of bonus features on this Criterion release of To Die For, which is something of a headscratcher.  Most of the central talent is still around and active. (Perhaps too active to be pinned down for a retrospective interview?)  This particular film begs for more in-depth investigation, which isn’t here.  There are no film experts, educators, or critics analyzing cinematic technique; no media gurus on hand to dig into To Die For’s cutting satire of achieving celebrity via formulaic TV news.  

Instead, there’s 35 minutes of random deleted scenes, all in unfinished low resolution.  Sometimes there’s visuals and no audio, other times it’s the other way around.  While the footage fills in a few gaps and fleshes out some motivations and story points, none of it is necessary or even beneficial.  But, besides the commentary track and the film’s trailer, that is it for bonus features.  It’s nice to have it, I suppose.

A word on the trailer… Back in the day, as To Die For was ramping up for its theatrical release, I saw this trailer quite a few times.  Unlike most ubiquitous trailers, this one didn’t wear out its welcome.  It made me look forward to seeing the movie.  

Though now dated (it has that sardonic comedy trailer voiceover), it’s still a fine piece of promotion.  Maybe too fine… I remember that when I saw the movie, a part of me was disappointed that the Don Henley song “Dirty Laundry,"  utilized so perfectly in the trailer, wasn’t in it.  Anyhow, it was kind of nice to revisit that aspect of the overall To Die For experience.  It made me miss “Dirty Laundry” all over again.

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But don’t tune out over the shortcoming of extras.  Criterion makes up for its dead air in the bonus menu with the brilliant picture quality of the movie itself.  This is a new 4K digital restoration, approved by Van Sant and D.P. Eric Alan Edwards, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which means it looks and sounds really good.  

Criterion’s To Die For is a two-disc set, with one 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features.  Play To Die For on either format and you’ll immediately see Suzanne shallowly pontificating about TV itself: “You get too close to the screen, all you see is a bunch of little dots.”  (She’s a vapidly profound video blogger well before her time).  It must be said, though, that watching this via 4K UHD, seeing said little dots is exponentially harder.

The package (designed by Tori Huynh) is rounded out with English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, plus a printed essay by film critic Jessica Kiang.  The published insert looks like a black and white tabloid newspaper, which is on-point.

Not the profound or even scathing film some might be looking for within such material (Network it ain’t), To Die For is merely a fascinating character study of an unrepentant narcissistic schemer.  You know, Republican presidential material.  There are several real neo-noir spirals taking place in Little Hope.  The question is, how many will resolve before Van Sant and the team sign off.  Film at 11….

To Die For

  • Gus Van Sant
  • Joyce Maynard
  • Buck Henry
  • Nicole Kidman
  • Matt Dillon
  • Joaquin Phoenix
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4K UHDBuck HenryCasey AffleckCriterion CollectionGus Van SantJoaquin PhoenixNicole KidmanJoyce MaynardMatt DillonComedyCrimeDrama

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