Dead On

October 06, 1995|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

"To Die For" will give a certain segment of the audience something to live for and another segment something to die from. It's not for the irony-impaired.

Mordant, dark, bitter, funny, sexy, sardonic, it's one of those special-case movies that rides its outrageousness into your heart and demands your affections even as it's brazenly offending you. It fits in that small category of nasty gigglers that includes "Sunset Boulevard," "The Loved One," "Where's Poppa?" and "Pretty Poison."

What bad boy director Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho") and bad old man screenwriter Buck Henry have done, through the medium of Joyce Maynard's novel, is re-wire the infamous Pamela Smart case into a wicked parable about the power of celebrity in even the smallest of American nooks and crannies. If you recall, Pamela Smart was a New Hampshire high school teacher accused of seducing a teen-age boy into murdering her husband.

As Van Sant and Henry have it, Smart becomes Suzanne Stone %% (Nicole Kidman), a blazingly ambitious young woman whose ferocity of temperament and utter single-mindedness have landed her a job as a weatherwoman on a cable-TV news station, possibly the least professional media outlet this side of Rhinelander, Wis.

Kidman is mesmerizing as she closes in on this American pathology. Her Suzanne is utterly without irony, without moderation, without morality, completely capable of using her fabulous beauty and body to get what she wants while maintaining the cutest and most banal of personas to friends, family and, most of all, the somewhat dense hunk she's married to -- Matt Dillon, as the last man in Little Hope, N.H., to get it. She's the Bad Seed on a Jane Pauley jag.

The movie is structured as a mock documentary, in the wake of a purposely vague post-scandal media frenzy, as various participants in the famous Suzanne Stone case are interviewed by an off-camera interlocutor, leading them into flashbacks that recapitulate the action chronologically. Suzanne herself seems to a part of this process as, in one of her pretty pink working-gal suits, she addresses the camera and tells her story in an earnest, peppy voice of complete self-seriousness.

Thus the film is one of those sophisticated documents where tone and mood are completely different, where we the audience are understanding things that the characters are too stupid or too self-deluding (self-delusion is a subtext) to see.

We watch as Suzanne essentially takes over, on the power of pure sexual charisma and technique, a clique of slackers at the local high school and turn them to her purposes, which are to bump off poor hubby Larry, who keeps whining about the babies he wants Suzanne to start producing.

The kids are achingly pathetic and poignant at once. Their leader, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix, the late actor River's brother) appears to be a semi-retarded chronic masturbator whose eyes radiate two messages simultaneously: "I hurt, therefore I am" and "I'm stupid, therefore I'm not." Yet as pathetic and hopeless as he is, he comes eventually to represent the movie's extremely small heart.

But in this brazen mixture, nothing is simple: At the same time, Suzanne's seduction of him, slow, teasing, utterly contemptuous, is very sexy. "To Die For" is a much hotter movie than the poor dim "Showgirls," because it understands the ritual of sex and takes its viewers through a narrative curve that traces the acceleration of the sexual impulse to climax and then separation.

The performances are uniformly su-perb, from Illeana Douglas' sarcastic turn as dim Dillon's smart sister to Dan Hedaya's baffled spin as Dillon's restaurant-owning father. The three kids -- besides the incandescent and Oscar-probable Phoenix, they are Casey Affleck and Alison Folland -- are achingly real. But the movie is really Kidman's. She manages to define a mind that is predatory and misaimed at once, so doubt-free it seems not really to acknowledge a larger universe. The film will certainly make her an actress rather than a star's wife. Tom who? you'll ask.

Many people are going to hate this movie. It's the ultimate post-modern document with its chilly morality, its deconstructed narrative, its fascination with pathology, its arrival of justice wrapped in clever irony. It's what the best movies always are: unsettling and provocative, profoundly irritating and endlessly fascinating.

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