Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel is equal parts dark comedy, noir, and media satire. The script by Buck Henry does an outstanding job of maintaining tone and tension. Acting throughout is spot-on, starting with a bravura performance by Nicole Kidman in the lead role.
To Die For opens with gloomy shots of Little Hope, New Hampshire, where the story takes place. The camera cuts between shots of a funeral and newspaper items hinting that “New Hope’s Own Weather (Girl)” might be guilty of murder as we move through the opening credits. Then we meet ditzy, self-absorbed Suzanne Stone (Kidman), who is recording a video and sharing thoughts on life. Here is an example:
There are some people who never know who they are or who they want to be until it’s too late, and that is a real tragedy in my book…because I always knew who I was and who I wanted to be. Always!
Throughout the film, Van Sant cuts between Suzanne’s video, interviews with other film characters, and depictions of their memories. Suzanne’s parents (Kurtwood Smith, Holland Taylor) are terribly proud of their daughter, who graduated from junior college with a degree in electronic journalism. They think she is too good for husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who works in his father’s Italian restaurant.
Meanwhile, the Marettos (Dan Hedaya, Maria Tucci) have their own reservations about their son’s non-Italian wife. Their daughter Janice (Illeana Douglas) describes her sister-in-law by using a “four-letter word beginning with C. You know, cold.”
Suzanne bulldozes the local television station into giving her a job announcing the weather; she floors them by saying on air that she reports from the “WWEN Weather Center.” She loves being on television and spends every waking moment thinking of ways to advance her career. Her job causes tension with Larry, who would like Suzanna to quit and start a family.
Suzanne talks the station manager (Wayne Knight) into letting her shoot film at the local high school for a future documentary. Only three students sign up to work with her-Russel (Casey Affleck), Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), and Lydia (Allison Folland). Suzanne begins an affair with Jimmy, who falls hopelessly in love. She pressures Jimmy to kill Larry so they can be free. Jimmy, with the help of Russel and Lydia, commits the murder.
The police take Suzanne’s film as a routine part of their investigation. They are tipped off by a section of film where Jimmy hints at having a relationship with Suzanne. All three students are arrested and quickly confess. It remains to be seen whether Suzanne can keep from being arrested-and whether she can continue to work toward her dream of becoming a journalist on national television.
Maynard’s novel is based on a 1991 court case in which 22-year-old Pamela Smart was convicted of manipulating her teenage lover and three of his friends to murder her husband. (A New Hampshire native, Maynard was living in the state during the trial.) Smart, a media coordinator at a New Hampshire high school, worked with the teenagers on a drug awareness program called Project Self-Esteem.
Pamela Smart detested Joyce Maynard’s novel, claiming that it contributed to the public perception of her as a cold-blooded killer. Maynard says her novel was finished and sold to a publisher before the trial, and that the jury reached its verdict almost a year before To Die For was published. Although Maynard claims no intent to paint Smart as a ruthless murderer, she has written to the New Hampshire governor on Smart’s behalf. At the time of this writing, all the young people have been granted parole but Smart is still in prison.
Theme: Bumbling Crooks
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