Gus Van Sant never really gets the credit he deserves as a stylist. As someone who got into his work primarily through his austere “Bela Tarr Period” I’m always struck by how formally inventive and playful a lot of his earlier movies are. I felt this way about Drugstore Cowboy, I felt this way about My Own Private Idaho and now I feel this way about To Die For. From frame one the film is alive. Combining talking head interviews with heightened fictionalisation of the central murder yarn, Van Sant heightens Buck Henry’s dark satire from tabloid peep show into pop-art.
At the centre of it all is an early signature role for Nicole Kidman. She really pops off the screen here and not just because of her A+ pastel suits. Attacking the role with a ferocity and subdued madness, she is always drawing your eyes onto her and into her. For a film about a woman obsessed with being the centre of attention, who is literally willing to kill fo fame, it’s a highwire “look at me!” performance that feels necessary in all its attention seeking. Her seduction of a young, brain-dead Joaquin Phoenix culminates in her dancing in the rain and car headlights to “Sweet Home Alabama”. It is at once sexy and disturbing but, most unnervingly, makes you realise that succumbing to the charms of a psychopath can be as simple as a statuesque blonde with damp hair singing Lynyrd Skynyrd. Men. What a feeble species.
It also made me nostalgic for mid-budget 90s movies. Like remember when filmmakers actually put effort into title sequences? Or when Danny Elfman would just be pulling memorable themes out of the air left, right and centre? The very specific “Danny Elfman Sound” that was embedded in so many 90s movies played a huge part in my own initial love affair with the medium and I miss it. Whenever I hear one of his themes, I’m happy. He was so good at establishing a specific tone with his music, a carnival sense of everything being just “off” and that anything could happen but whatever that was, it would be fun in a twisted sort of way. That description could easily be applied to To Die For itself, so the marriage of composer and material is well suited.
I never get tired of seeing Matt Dillon play these sort of knuckleheads (Ben Affleck in Gone Girl is basically Matt Dillon in most 90s movies at 40) and in Van Sant’s hands he always seems at home. By the time David fucking Cronenberg shows up in the last act as a lothario hitman I had to pinch myself to make sure I hadn’t actually descended into one of my own dreams. What an odd world we live in. Gus Van Sant is one of its most astute observers.