Who Goes There?
Chris Wisniewski on To Die For
“In our fast-moving computer age, it’s the medium of television that joins together our global community.” When an NBC executive (George Segal) utters this line at a broadcasting conference in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For, Nicole Kidman’s vicious, vacuous, and seductive Suzanne Stone listens with quiet, calculated intensity. But hearing the line again over a decade after having last seen the film, I couldn’t help but chuckle at its quaintness—a curiously dated evocation of a moment, just before the rapid ascendancy of the Internet, when broadcast television still held some primacy as a conduit of information and entertainment. Back in ‘95, though, neither To Die For nor its subject seemed quaint. Bolstered by a sexy, star-making turn from Kidman, the film earned Van Sant serious raves, marking a major return after the disaster of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. To Die For was a wickedly funny comedy and a trenchant, vital, ripped-from-the-headlines satire of television and the American obsession with fame. Who could have guessed how quickly it would age? Today, even the opening credit sequence feels musty, with its montage of newspaper clippings and tabloid covers, shot in extreme close-up, magnified to tiny dots of ink—an endearing throwback to a time when people got their daily gossip fixes from honest-to-goodness print publications, before Perez Hilton, Defamer, Gawker, and their ilk took their place at the center of celebrity culture.
Now that the pixels of our computer screens have begun to replace those tiny ink dots—and Nicole Kidman has catapulted from aspiring star-cum-famous wife past the point of bona fide celebrity and actorly legitimacy to the edge of being finished—it may be impossible to assess Van Sant’s film on its own terms or, more precisely, on the terms of its time and place. A satire about the now-dying medium of broadcast television, inspired by the then-timely true story of a New Hampshire woman who convinced her teenage lover and his friends to kill her husband, To Die For is an artifact of a passed cultural moment, and it plays better in memory than it does upon re-viewing. Where once it felt fresh, funny, and challenging, it’s hard now to overlook its flaws—the lopsidedness of the storytelling, the luridness and messiness of the filmmaking. As an auteur, Van Sant has always been a little difficult to pin down, an often first-rate craftsman who seems to latch on to whatever aesthetic approach strikes his fancy at just the right moment, coherence and intellectual rigor be damned, and as a result, his films, impressive though they are on first glance, often end up saying too much and nothing at the same time. Still, if Van Sant is a superficial opportunist, he’s got talent and timing on his side, and there may be no better example in his oeuvre of these qualities than To Die For.
Adapted by Buck Henry from Joyce Maynard’s novel (a fictionalized account of the Pamela Smart case— not the last time a Van Sant film would co-opt real life tragedy for its own purposes), To Die For follows Suzanne, an aspiring television newscaster who does the local weather and spends her free time working on a documentary about three local teens, taking one of them as her lover. Suzanne convinces the teens to murder her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon), a dull but good-natured local whose family has connections to the mob. Maynard structured her book around character monologues rather than deploying an omniscient or privileged narrative voice, and Van Sant and Henry borrow Maynard’s fractured approach to point-of-view. The film starts with Suzanne telling her own story, and then breaks from this first-person perspective. Suzanne’s parents and sister, along with her husband’s parents, narrate pieces of the tale on a television talk-show, while Larry’s sister (Illeana Douglas), Suzanne’s lover Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), and Lydia, the female teenager involved in the murder (Alison Folland), offer their own takes in documentary-style scenes, with handheld camerawork and off-screen voices goading them along, giving To Die For a film-within-a-film (or television exposé-within-a-film) conceit.
Though the characters’ recollections structure the narrative, the flashbacks they motivate are shot more or less as conventional narrative cinema. As a result, Van Sant sets up two conflicting modes of address that he never quite resolves: the multiplicity of voices framing the story and the omniscient visual storytelling of the flashbacks. At first, Van Sant’s approach facilitates propulsive editing and a disarming uncertainty: as spectators, we don’t know if we can trust what we see and hear, nor do we have a central point of identification, since Suzanne remains so ambiguous, her character largely reconstructed through other people’s perception of her. Once the teenagers make their way into the narrative proper, though—about halfway into the film—the framing interviews become less frequent, and the flashbacks become increasingly dissociated from the narration, including scenes that the “narrating” characters couldn’t be privy to, such as an argument between the third killer (Casey Affleck) and his teacher (screenwriter Henry) and a cutaway to a dull conversation between Larry and his father (Dan Hedaya) in a car. In its second half, To Die For settles into a far more conventional approach, with the tacked-on interviews functioning more as interstitials than as a central narrative device.
It’s a shame, too, because the fractured narrative approach of the first half of the film has intellectual and thematic resonance: the multiple points-of-view establish a contest (played out on and through television) about who has the right to tell Suzanne’s story, and in a sense, to discursively define her identity. In Suzanne’s opening monologue—spoken for a video camera—she introduces herself with her married name, Suzanne Maretto, before hesitating and reintroducing herself with her “own name,” her “professional name,” Suzanne Stone. This simple act announces the existential crisis that drives the film: Suzanne wants to be on television because, as she insists, “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” In a perverse way, To Die For sets Suzanne up as a pseudo-feminist, rejecting an identity as wife/mother for a life and identity of her own, forged through her profession—and not just any profession, but one that allows her, in the parlance of Youtube, to broadcast herself (or her self). As Larry plays with young children at a family gathering, Suzanne’s dismissive annoyance is both sad and funny; we may reject her outrageous selfishness, ambition, and vanity, played undeniably for laughs, but To Die For hardly presents domesticity as a viable alternative. Suzanne views domestic life as self-erasure and conflates publicity with identity. In its best moments, To Die For uses its fractured narrative approach, its multiplicity of televised voices, to expose this central conflict over who gets to define Suzanne Maretto (née Stone) and to map this conflict back onto the media-obsession of our twisted, celebrity-driven culture.
That’s why the second half of the film feels like something of a dead end: Van Sant’s turn to more conventional storytelling marks a shift in emphasis away from Suzanne and onto the teenagers she seduces and studies. From an auteurist perspective, this fascination with young, white, socially marginal teenagers is consistent with Van Sant’s other work, but here, it seems vaguely exploitative. Suzanne goes down on young Jimmy, and Van Sant’s camera lingers in close-up on his torso, luring at his young flesh. Earlier, he masturbates to her weather report, shirtless. Whether or not Jimmy is too young to consent—or even, one might suspect from Phoenix’s performance, mildly retarded—his body becomes an object of relatively unproblematized sexual fascination for Suzanne and for the filmmaker, which leads Van Sant to elide a crucial question: Is Suzanne genuinely attracted to Jimmy, or is she just using her sexuality to manipulate him? In the case of queer(ish) Lydia, the issue is ostensibly more cut-and-dry, but even as Suzanne uses Lydia’s crush to bend her to her will, the extent of Suzanne’s premeditation remains unclear. At this point, we see Suzanne almost exclusively through them—alluring, dangerous, and strangely mercurial. Suzanne becomes less a point of contention than an unknowable, unattainable other, and the film becomes less about what drives Suzanne to enlist these children to kill her husband than what drives them to follow through on her request.
The last time we see Suzanne, she is encased, fittingly enough, in a translucent tomb of ice, visible but beyond our apprehension. This image strikes a pointed contrast with the final pre-credits shot of the film, in which Lydia talks about her own burgeoning celebrity as her image multiplies, again and again, filling the frame with reproductions of her televisual self. Lydia reflects on Suzanne’s observation that “you’re not anybody” if you aren’t on TV, and then conjectures, presciently, “If everybody was on TV all the time there wouldn’t be anybody left to watch.” It’s a brilliant ending, visually distilling almost everything this movie is about while making it seem vitally, enduringly relevant. Still, I’m not convinced Van Sant has any idea what the hell he’s really trying to say with this ending—or with this movie—but ideas have never been his strong suit. Sometimes, though, the images speak for themselves.