John Baumgartner

TO DIE FOR (1995, Van Sant)

I’m a little obsessed with this movie at the moment. One part Citizen Kane, one part Goodfellas with a healthy dose of super-smart zany — Gus Van Sant delivers a film as profound and as brilliantly crafted as anything the auteur makers of the first 2 films I mentioned ever managed.

There are innumerable moments to blog about from this film, it’s written, directed and acted to such perfection. But there was one shot that I found particularly inventive both for its visual pizazz as for its fun play on theme.

Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a frighteningly dim but determined woman hell-bent on becoming a famous television news personality. She seduces a high school student (played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) and manipulates him to kill her husband played by Matt Dillon. (Interestingly, the role was reportedly offered to Meg Ryan for $5 million. Kidman would get $2M…and a BAFTA and Golden Globe.)

More than one character recounts Suzanne’s life philosophy, which sums up the main theme of the whole film, too, and pretty much today’s social media age:

Suzanne used to say that you’re not really anybody in America… unless you’re on Tv. ‘Cause what’s the point of doing anything worth while… if there’s nobody watching? So when people are watching, it makes you a better person.”

Gus Van Sant’s Art imitating Life

Well, suffice it to say, in this dark comedy, as in the real life story it was loosely based on, things do not turn out well for our heroes. And after all the shit has hit the fan, the remaining family members find themselves, where else, in front of the TV cameras on a daytime talk show. Van Sant (and writer Buck Henry) sprinkle this setting brilliantly throughout the film, allowing its thematic relevance to seep into your sub-conscious. (It was quite a while into the film before the scenes’ relevance hit me, as we’re so saturated with this talk-show setting in real life we don’t even think twice about it – one of many salient points the film makes so beautifully.)

In the first shot of this youtube clip you’ll see a great depiction of the line being blurred between real life and television, fact and fiction, news and entertainment — in addition to being just plain visual fun. I love the clever timing of the shot. As added bonuses, the clip goes on to show the dynamic writing and cutting style of the film (it leaps and doubles back with gorgeously fun agility – very Citizen Kaney).


  • September 8, 2011

    My favorite shot (from memory) – the close up of Illeana smiling, pulling back to reveal she’s ice skating. On the lake. Over the body. To the “Season of The Witch.”

    Ah, genius. She is an elusive whore. To me at least.


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