Friday, 9 April 2010

You Know Mr Gorbachev, The Guy That Ran Russia For So Long?

I can never really work out whether I think To Die For is overrated or underrated. I quite enjoy it, but is it actually good? All of the camp theatrics of the film - are they deliberate overplays designed almost to function in a Brechtian way, to stop you really relating to the characters and instead forcing you to analyse them critically? Or are they kind of just overplays. I'm tending to go with the former. I'm thinking I like the film.

Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne, a beautiful girl with no real talents but a true desire to succeed. She badgers her way on screen as a weather reporter for a local news station, and is constantly winning over her husband Larry (Matt Dillon) to get her way - manipulating him into submission is probably a more accurate way to describe her actions. Larry wants Suzanne to take time off her climbing of the corporate ladder in order to start a family, something Suzanne is not keen on. To this end, she begins a project with schoolkids and lures three of the dumbest and most hick into her trap. 

Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is the ringleader, probably the dumbest, and Suzanne seduces him one night at her house. Russel (Casey Affleck) seems to be a bit smarter but still follows Jimmy around as his foil, while Lydia (Alison Folland) idolises Suzanne and seems to have no one else to hang around with than the two brutes - I believe after rewatching To Die For that Lydia is in fact a lesbian, in love with Suzanne, unsure of how to deal with her teenage feelings in a small American town. Suzanne ends up bribing and cajoling the kids to off Larry, which they do, before Suzanne turns her backs on them and pretends to know nothing about it - she is let off from her charges due to entrapment technicalities employed by the police in gathering evidence against her. She thinks she has won, but in the end she does not, something shown with a great little cameo from David Cronenberg.

Kidman won her first Golden Globe for her terrific performance, combining devious planning with ditzy actions and making herself endlessly creepy yet undeniably watchable. Dillon played the shallow role of the husband well also - it wasn't much of a stretch in terms of complexity of character, and the camped nature of his performance suited his strengths. Affleck was strong in a small role, and Folland did decent work with her confused character (she is probably my weakest link in the cast, however), while Phoenix did terrific things with his down and dirty portrayal of someone who may in fact be on the verge of a medical diagnosis of mild retardation. His character allowed for the deepest character representation in a real sense on screen, and he grabbed hold of it and made it work for him. No wonder he went on to become the great performer he has since been recognised as.

The script from Buck Henry (based on the book by Joyce Maynard) was very clever, and the dialogue and narration from Suzanne was written perfectly. Director Gus Van Sant let the film take itself along, giving it a quirk but leaving it decidedly more accessible to the mainstream than his earlier works. He seems to dip in and out of mainstream in phases - following To Die For he ran around and made such films as Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting, before dropping out again for the Death Trilogy (here and here), and now seems to be in and out much faster - Milk was serious yet commercial but upcoming Restless looks like it may play more akin to Paranoid Park.

Anyway, I've distracted myself. I like it. I do. 4 stars.

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