Murderess Intent

Director Gus Van Sant's crackling new film To Die For matches up perfectly with the performance of its star, Nicole Kidman. It's as lean and graceful as a cheetah, and it wears a lewdly sinister grin that intimates you're being let in on a naughty joke. Watching the film, you may feel like it's a dumb, obvious joke. But it's funny just the same, because, dumb or not, it's plainly and painfully true.

Kidman plays Suzanne Maretto, a.k.a. Suzanne Stone, a small-time TV personality on a local cable channel in a small town in New Hampshire with the diagnostically significant name of Little Hope. Suzanne, an Amazonian Wasp who seems to be half beauty pageant contestant and half Valkyrie, has one simple goal--to get ahead in TV. She'll stop at nothing to achieve it.

She's married to a pleasant but not especially motivated Italian American (Matt Dillon) who was a sexy bad boy when they were dating, but who makes the mistake of thinking she wants him to settle down and go suburban after they hitch. She begins to think he's holding her back; when he starts to pester her about having kids, he doesn't realize the danger he's getting himself into.On the pretext of shooting a documentary about modern youth, Suzanne befriends atrio of stupid, aimless lower-class teens (Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland and Casey Affleck), one of whom (Phoenix) she seduces. Those who remember the case of Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire high school teacher who seduced one of her students afew years back, can guess how the plot develops from this point.Indeed, there's nothing all that original about the plot, per se. But there's a spectacular virtuosity in the way the tale is told, through a complex structure effortlessly mingling faux-documentary footage, flashbacks and fantasy sequences. It's a return to triumph for screenwriter Buck Henry (adapting Joyce Maynard's novel) as well as for Van Sant, who followed his Drugstore Cowboy--one of the best American films of the '80s--with the boring, much overrated My Own Private Idaho and the wretched Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Van Sant keeps the film fast and caustic, without losing the deadpan lyricism that is his distinctive style. Images like that of two police detectives wading into the ocean to arrest one of the boys--whose job is gathering offshore debris--demonstrate the poverty of imagination with which such material is generally handled on TV.

A shot of a cop dusting a TV set for fingerprints while the flag flies on the screen and the national anthem plays is sharp and funny in itself. But it's also perfectly integrated into the scene as a whole--it leads to a sequence that puts a whole new spin on Norma Desmond's "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille" scene from Sunset Boulevard.

But in To Die For, the gag is more provocative, because Norma's crazy fame-hunger was seen as a product of the corrupt but more or less closed world of Tinseltown. Hollywood could chuckle at her affectionately because it was fond of her sick glamour, and the rest of 1950s America saw her as safely distant from the mainstream.

In Van Sant's America, there'd be a Norma Desmond on every block. To Die For is like a Sunset Boulevard for the Warhol era.

Kidman's performance drives the film and sets its comedic tone. It's the first time she comes across like a star rather than an exquisite piece of set decoration. Something in this one-of-a-kind role seems to turn her on. She's so much more alive here than she has been in any of her other films that one guesses it may prove the high point of her career.

Her Suzanne is an utter airhead who's nonetheless always thinking--the gears in her head click loudly as they turn. This ice princess can seduce teenagers and plot murders with the same chipperness she'd bring to a charity drive, and she probably believes the denials and justifications she later spouts.

It's also worth noting that, vapid though Suzanne may be, her aspirations aren't misdirected. Although her on-camera style is more effusive and less relaxed than many of the local anchors (of both sexes) you'd see in the Phoenix market, it's not really any less insipid. She obviously has the makings of a pro. It may be that the least plausible aspect of To Die For's plot is that no big-time TV stations come sniffing around trying to sign Suzanne.

To Die For is one of those rare, exhilarating films that seem to work almost perfectly on their own terms. There were one or two elements that I didn't like about the movie, strictly on a thematic level. Using a woman's lack of interest in having kids as a sign that she's evil is getting to be a tiresome device. And the story's resolution carries a hint of the approvingly reactionary, though Van Sant is able to minimize this with his beautiful and hilarious final image.

The picture is played for comedy, and itmade me laugh hard. But if you compare Henry and Van Sant's vision of America, with its morally bereft and legally exempt celebrities; its pathetic, brainlessly malleable teenagers; its ethnic tensions; its utter obsession with appearances; its veneration of TV; and its plainly higher respect for career than for human life, you may wonder what's so funny.

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