Gus Van Sant has made some terrific movies during his eclectic career, but one of his absolute best (and easily my personal favorite), is the scalpel-sharp 1995 satire To Die For. Ultra-vicious, scandalous, and gleefully nasty, this film is still as incisive now as it was at the time of its release over 20 years ago. Van Sant employed a mockumentary approach to a portion of the highly-stylized narrative, which was in perfect tandem with the truly hysterical and dark humor in Buck Henry’s absolutely brilliant screenplay. Henry, an old-pro-master of caustic, sexually charged cinema (The Graduate), biting social commentary (Catch-22), and playful comedy (What’s Up Doc?), wrote a poison-pen letter to the entire country with To Die For, and delivered some of the smartest, saddest laughs that I can possibly think of. This is a scathing indictment of our constant need to be celebrated, and it’s downright crazy how many similarities it shares with the recent and equally disturbing Nightcrawler; both films revel in outright contempt for our hyperactive media and the ever celebrated notion of “15 minutes of fame.” Loosely based on the real-life Pamela Smart murder case based out of Derry, New Hampshire, Nicole Kidman delivered the trickiest, iciest performance of her career, totally investing herself in a sociopathic character who sits at the same table as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler.
The comparisons are striking between the two films, as both feature self-possessed lead characters who are consumed with the need to be important and famous, both drive flashy red sports cars, both have coldly detached, murderous instincts, and both will stop at nothing to accomplish their “goals.” I’m assuming that Dan Gilroy is a big fan. Kidman has only matched her overall work in To Die For a couple of other times (Birth, Eyes Wide Shut), and has always been an actress of stunning, porcelain-doll beauty, but in the role of Suzanne Stone-Maretto, she tapped into something scary deep within herself, subverting her intense physical appearance, resulting in a performance for the ages. The stellar supporting cast includes the perfectly selected Matt Dillon as the poor, unfortunate husband, the impossibly unique Illeana Douglas, an absurdly young Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix as two ultimate high school stoners, a dry Kurtwood Smith, Wayne Knight, Dan Hedaya, Michael Rispoli, and Buck Henry in a deliciously evil cameo as the high school teacher from Hell. Tragic, absurd, and mean-spiritedly honest about the delusions of a certain type of person, To Die For holds up remarkably well as a damning portrait of cinematic narcissistic self-involvement that extends its grasp to the fringes of our demented society.