Criterion Review: Nicole Kidman is TO DIE FOR

A new 4K-UHD transfer of Gus Van Sant’s sharp take on obsession

We live in a dire age where fame has given way to celebrity, and even worse, influencers. Fame is not just a result of talent anymore, but drive, persistence, follower count, and often controversy. It’s been a long gestating tilt, one obviously fueled by reality TV and social media. But even before this digital age, magazines and TV shows offered a window into the enviable and glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous. To Die For is rooted in this era, and prophetic about our present too. A dark and smartly woven satire about obsession, driven by a captivating performance by Nicole Kidman.

Suzanne Stone (Kidman) is a small town girl, one who has always dreamed of being on TV. Not necessarily because of achieving something notable, just being on TV seems to be the main aim. Despite her aspirations of celebrity, she turns up a surprise in announcing plans to marry local boy Larry (Matt Dillon), a man who has little aspiration beyond working in his father’s Italian restaurant. While on their honeymoon, she slips away to attend a broadcasting conference, to schmooze and setup a future beyond her reading the weather forecast on a local cable TV channel. With a host of connections and possibility of network TV in her mind, Suzanne now has a problem, her dead weight husband. Looped into matters are a trio of high schoolers, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland). All are beguiled by Suzanne’s status and words, with Jimmy falling for her other seductive qualities, allowing her to manipulate them into a scheme to free her from both her husband, and the shackles of her hometown.

Adapted by Buck Henry (Grumpy Old Men, The Graduate) from Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel, which itself was inspired by the Pamela Smart murder case. This vein of truth runs through the film adding to it’s weight, and giving it an edge as it flits with savage satire and black humor. The film itself it intricately structure, stitching together elements of melodrama, comedy, true-crime, a coming of age story, and even a documentary feel. News reports and interview segments both tee up the tale, and expand on events and personal motivations throughout. It’s in this the film finds a more unique voice, in centering largely on a woman’s POV. Her desires and drive, even if twisted, is the driving force for the film while also more widely speaking to the innate human flaws of stupidity, vanity, and desire. Director Gus Van Sant has had some highs (My Own Private Idaho) and lows (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) during his career. To Die For shows him in fine form. The film is expertly paced, with a snap to it’s wit. Tonal and structural shifts are well leveraged for drama and humor. It’s incisive commentary, on the then burgeoning obsession with tabloids and celebrity, but up against modern day developments, it feels rather prophetic.

Larry is one of those roles that Dillon feels perfectly attuned to, a local lad whose aspirations end at the local bar and sofa at home. The perfect counterpoint to the delusions of grandeur that flood his wife’s mind. Another standout is Phoenix as this hollowed out, vulnerable kid, drawn into Suzanne’s web. The tragedy at play all revolves around a singular figure, brilliantly brought to life by Nicole Kidman. She crafts a prim and proper girl next door, who goes beyond being self-absorbed into a deluded mindset and blinkered course of actions. It’s not just the refined look, but the movement and mannerisms of Suzanne that affirm that this is someone who lacks the societally implanted knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. Disarming and dangerous, just a perfectly painted figure of a cold blooded obsessive, who gets the fame she deserves, rather than the fame she wanted.

The Package

Criterion offer up an all new 4K transfer, sourced from a 35mm negative, with a restoration approved by director Gus Van Sant and director of photography Eric Alan Edwards. The result is a crisp, flawless image, showing impressive stability, and sharpness throughout. Colors are robust but naturally represented, detail is a standout, in both light and dark sequences. Grain is maintained and adds a natural filmic quality to the presentation. The package/extra features include:

  • One 4K UHD disc of the film one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary featuring Van Sant, Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, and editor Curtiss Clayton: A pretty packed commentary that is filled with on set anecdotes, production and casting details, and insights into the ‘look’ of the film
  • Deleted scenes: Running around 30 min, note these are not given the restoration treatment
  • Trailer:
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Jessica Kiang: Within the accompanying liner booklet. A well written piece that largely ties the film into the American obsession with crime, and the fall from grace of beloved celebrities who get thrust into the limelight after illegal acts

The Bottom Line

To Die For is a multi sided story of obsession, blending sardonic, dark comedy, with a scathing critique of celebrity. Gus Van Sant’s layered feature is brilliantly constructed, but the performance from Nicole Kidman as this seductive psychopath is what truly captivates. Criterion’s 4K is pristine, and well supported by the included extras.

To Die For 4K-UHD is available via Criterion from March 26th

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