Millennial Malaise 35: To Die For

In Which You’re Nobody Unless You’re on TV

If film was the medium of the 20th century, than television is the form of the 21st century. This truism is one of things that feels like a trite oversimplification of the culture, but has resonance as time trundles forward. Yes television existed in the 20th century and was a central part of (at least American) culture, but the new way of living is structured like a TV show. We have a game show president, a news cycle doled out in thrilling installments, idle celebrity watching, and even movies patterned and produced like episodes of a an epic series meant to enrapture the audience.

A lot of this structure took hold in the 90’s with the introduction of cable news and the proliferation of easy to produce reality programming. And the world of film responded in kind to the encroachment of the televised event by fomenting a whole genre of movie in retaliation. Call it the, “you’re nobody unless you’re on TV” genre, and its populated with such notable features like Natural Born Killers and The Truman Show. Interestingly for a genre that grew into its own during a time of technological upheaval, it remains trenchant during our always on life of today. Some of the targets might feel more 20th century, but the insight has proven frighteningly sticky as the decades roll by.

Such is the case for Gus Van Sant’s mordant 1995 media comedy To Die For. A flick that sits at the center point of a whole host of notable films past and present. To Die For is a more restrained reflection of the themes found in Natural Born Killers, with some of the fun genre mashes of Tarantino, and an obvious influence on futures projects such as Gone Girl and Nightcrawler. And all this swirling around the voracious star power of Nicole Kidman, who for the first time in her career, fully displays her control and charisma as an actor.

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Kidman is Suzanne Stone, a small town pretty girl with aspirations of being a major newscaster. For the time being she’s not achieving those goals. Instead she’s knotted into a bit of the domestic doldrums. Her new husband Larry (Matt Dillon) is a successful restaurant owner who doesn’t want to move out of town for her career. Sue’s job at the local cable station has not led to new, better offers, instead she’s stuck reading weather reports. One day she decides to document a group of local hooligans for a TV special: Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Lydia (Allison Folland), and Russell (Casey Affleck). Suzanne then decides to use the teens’ attraction to her (both sexually and platonically) to have them whack her husband and send her to the top of the media narrative.

The plot is mostly a formality, a vessel from which the film can fulfill it’s true purpose: as a piercing character study of Sue as a person defined by TV, and transforming Kidman into the actor that she’s known as to this day. The film lives and dies by her presence, and her performance drives every second of the film even when she’s not on screen. The gravity of what Kidman brings to the table is absolutely transformative, white heat and thunder all rolled up into one. But it’s not a showy display, Sue rarely transforms into a hysteric being of emotions, the performance lives in the subtle details and gestures. The way she looks at the camera, the overly formal affectations she takes with every conversation, and the knowing signs of relief when she is fully in control of the band of ruffian teens and has them at her whims.

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All this performing is fundamental because To Die For is a film ultimately about a performance. The work one woman does to be important. And to Sue, the only way to be, “anybody in America” is to be on TV. Sue represents a force of female self-actualization, a manifestation of the of the systemic repression of women in the world, dangerously mixed in with mythic American need to be an important individual. To the viewer Sue’s professional struggle is entirely sympathetic. She’s a person who wants a life outside being a domestic doter, providing for her husband’s every whim and need, each one of her attempts to break through into the working world is met by derogatory and sexist stonewalling. Also, Sue’s cogent enough to not want to trade sexual favors to producers for primo gigs. She wants to be in control of her narrative, and seeing some of the stifling roadblocks that get in her way is infuriating.

Thus Van Sant maneuvers the sympathies of the viewer into more deadly places. As Sue begins to exploit her teenage followers and manipulate them to murder her husband it almost seems like a reasonable proposition. In a world so stifling wouldn’t you go to great lengths to get things your way? If every moment of your life felt disempowering, wouldn’t you use what you have to get back a position of control. This set of confused sympathies is where the great narrative power of the film pulls from. One of the reasons TV is so engrossing is that it turns everyone into a character whose arc you can follow and invest in. The people on the screen are no longer figures and representatives of ideas, but instead stewards of emotional being. We make sense of the world through storytelling, and TV beautifully indulges that instinct.

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Unfortunately Van Sant doesn’t quite have the follow through of all this. The finale of the film feels too cute and jokey to match well with the premise and thematic work built up to that point. The resolution is born out of what seems to be a throw away gag about the mafia that turns into a deadly serious twist that moderately undermines the journey Sue’s character went on. And by the time the credits roll Van Sant has parked his thematic bus into, ” well anybody will do anything to be famous camp” without picking at the impulses that lead to such actions.

To Die For then doesn’t cohere into a total insight into the woe’s or America’s relationship to the tube, but it does sparkle with it along the way. Lifted up by the magnetism of Kidman’s work, and some fun formal gimmicks (lots of slo-mo, jumbled chronology, and direct addresses to the camera) make the film never less than entertaining. To Die For then snugly fits in the TV satire realm without fully rising to the possibilities of the genre.

Odds and Ends

  • I could spend whole article on the strange and varied career of Gus Van Sant. An indie auteur who sits outside of the narrative of 90’s independent cinema (he broke out before the Soderbergh/Tarantino Sundance explosion) but is also inextricably tied to the ups and downs of the decade. He veers wildly from artistic isolating features to treacly Hollywood slop. It’s hard to say he has a distinctive style, but the highlights of his oeuvre (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant) are fascinating and engaging.
  • Also a whole article could written about how To Die For was a bit of a coronation for both Kidman and Phoenix. Both had been in movies since they were kids, but this feels like the moment when they crystallized themselves as the insanely talented actors we know to today.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Another week where I’m open to suggestions for the next article. But who knows what flick I’ll choose next.