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  • Jeff Beck

To Die For: A Tale of Unbridled Ambition Undone by a Puzzling Structure (Criterion Blu-ray)

The Film:

It's fair to say that writer/director Gus Van Sant has had a career of highs and lows, with the lows including a completely pointless shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho," and the highs seeing him earn two Best Director Oscar nominations for his excellent films "Good Will Hunting" and "Milk" (both of which coincidentally won Oscars for acting and screenwriting). However, before any of that, he had a string of critically-acclaimed films that led right up to that first nomination, capped off with a film that's not talked about very much: "To Die For," starring three future Oscar winners (and a future nominee). This week, Criterion celebrates this early critical success of his by adding it to their collection, so naturally it's time to see if that acclaim was well-deserved, or if there's perhaps a reason why it's not mentioned very often among his great works.

Taking place in a small New Hampshire town, "To Die For" tells the story of Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who aspires to be a superstar reporter on television. She falls in love with and marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who promises to support her lofty ambitions. Her first major step towards her goal has her getting a job at a small local cable station, originally as a secretary, but eventually moving on to the weather. She comes up with an idea to do a documentary about teens and the issues they're facing, recruiting Russel (Casey Affleck), James (Joaquin Phoenix), and Lydia (Alison Folland) from a local high school for the project. However, Larry's attitude towards Suzanne's career aspirations begins to change, and as she gets to know her subjects a lot better, things quickly take a very dark turn.

"To Die For," adapted by Buck Henry from the book by Joyce Maynard, sets itself up to be a tale of unbridled ambition, one that starts off innocently enough at first, but which quickly reveals that Suzanne is a little more eager than others when it comes to getting ahead. Generally there isn't really anything wrong with the story itself, for a story like this could be quite compelling as it goes down its darker path of twists and turns, but what stops this particular rendition of the age-old tale of doing whatever it takes to reach the top from being as effective as it might be is a rather inexplicable structure that ends up revealing far too much too early.

The film is fashioned as a documentary of sorts, telling us from the very start that there's been a murder and flashing back to reveal what happened, while at the same time showing us interviews with the key players. By structuring the film this way, the viewer is able to put practically the entire story together from very early on, leaving them to watch it play out in a mostly perfunctory manner. Why the filmmakers would choose to tell the story in this spoilery way when a more straightforward telling would've worked far better is unknown. Clearly they were going for a gimmick that would fit in with their main character, but when the gimmick ends up hurting the film, it should've been rather obvious that a different approach was needed.

That said, it's hardly a bad film. Watching this talent-packed cast is rather fascinating in itself, especially because it gives us some intriguing early performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. Then, of course, there's the always-stunning Nicole Kidman, who earned a Golden Globe & Critics Choice award (as well as a BAFTA nomination) for her wickedly-ambitious portrayal of Suzanne Stone. While the plot points may be pretty predictable for the most part, this ensemble at least makes it interesting to watch.

However, it really just makes you wish that they had been able to fix the film's structural problem from the start in order to tell this story properly. That way, its twists & turns would actually have a chance of being a surprise, and the film itself would be more effective as a whole. "To Die For" could've been a viciously dark satire about the lengths some will go to achieve their goals, but sadly all it ultimately becomes is a bit of a puzzling question mark in Gus Van Sant's filmography.


4K digital restoration (1.85:1)

5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Gus Van Sant, Director of Photography Eric Alan Edwards, and Editor Curtiss Clayton

Deleted Scenes


Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" boasts an impressive cast that includes three future Oscar winners and a tale of unbridled ambition that could've made for a fairly riveting experience, but sadly it's all undone by a rather inexplicable, puzzling structure that reveals far too much too early, ultimately causing this potentially dark satire to lose its bite.

Score: 3/5

Now available on Criterion Blu-ray.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


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