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Film Appreciation: To Die For

Film Appreciation: To Die For

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

Related Posts: Film Review: I, Tonya  http://www.thinkingcinema.com/film-review-i-tonya/

Bumbling Crooks: List For Week Ending December 10, 2017  http://www.thinkingcinema.com/bumbling-crooks-list-for-week-ending-december-10-2017/

Sources:

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114681/

N.H. Magazine: http://www.nhmagazine.com/November-2016/Pamela-Smart-Innocent/

Film Appreciation: Maurice

Film Appreciation: Maurice

James Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice is a lovely, understated film about a gay man struggling to accept his sexuality while the world around him works equally hard to deny it. The story, an adaptation of the novel by E. M. Forster, is set in England just prior to World War I. As a character inContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Fargo

Film Appreciation: Fargo

The Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) is perhaps one of the most upbeat films you will ever see about a brutal kidnapping and murder. It takes an established cinematic format, the police procedural with elements of noir, and then moves us to a new place by adding dark comedy. Naturalistic settings and straightforward visual presentation almostContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Say Anything….

Film Appreciation: Say Anything….

Cameron Crowe’s 1989 directorial debut is an appealing film about a romance between two very different young people living in Seattle. One is a beautiful valedictorian, winner of a fellowship to study in England. The other is more interested in kickboxing than college. In the early scenes, newly graduated Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) tries toContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Thank You For Smoking

Film Appreciation: Thank You For Smoking

Jason Reitman’s debut film as a writer/director is savagely funny. Although Reitman simplifies Christopher Buckley’s novel in his adaptation, the plot is still gleefully subversive. The story focuses on super-confident Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. He continues to insist their studies have found no links between smoking and lungContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Film Appreciation: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one whale of an entertaining film. It has an infectious musical score by T. Bone Burnett, terrific comic performances, and snappy dialogue. The story is a clever transposition of Homer’s Odyssey to the American south during the Great Depression. There is just one catch. Joel and Ethan Coen, whoContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Limonata

Film Appreciation: Limonata

I discovered the 2015 Turkish film Limonata, Ali Atay’s feature directing debut, somewhat by accident on Netflix. A couple of viewings later, I am a fan. Atay has a sure instinct for deadpan visual effects, and this suits the story quite well. In addition, he and co-writer Ertan Saban have produced a funny variation on the road/buddyContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Little Fugitive

Film Appreciation: Little Fugitive

“Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, Little Fugitive.” Francois Truffaut A desire for independent production has been around as long as there have been films. The Society of Independent MotionContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: Paris, Texas

Film Appreciation: Paris, Texas

A Tale Of Two Road Movies Paris, Texas is a complex, stunning film. It has a western’s sensibility, in that its protagonist is concerned with reestablishing a type of law and order. Even so, Wim Wender’s 1984 film has little in common with classic Hollywood westerns. The story centers on a traumatized man, played byContinue Reading

Film Appreciation: The King’s Speech

Film Appreciation: The King’s Speech

Here are two statements about The King’s Speech (2010): It is an uplifting, fact-based film with an equally inspiring backstory. It contains a number of glaring historical inaccuracies. Both statements are true. Uplifting Film, Inspiring Backstory Tom Hooper’s film deals with England’s Prince Albert (Colin Firth) and his struggles to adjust to his new roleContinue Reading