Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Russell Crowe road-rage thriller Unhinged racing (unwisely) into theaters, we’re looking back on other films that cast movie stars as psychopaths.
By 1994, Nicole Kidman had gotten her foot in the door of American cinema, but one dimension of success continued to elude her. She recalled her early travails in Hollywood for a recent oral history of Gus Van Sant’s ripped-from-the-headlines satire To Die For, expressing a certain frustration with the paucity of out-there prestige gigs: “I’d go on auditions and was shocked at how few complicated roles there were for women! I got Days Of Thunder, and then Malice with Alec Baldwin. But I was like, ‘Where are the art films and idiosyncratic filmmakers like Jane Campion? How do I work with them?’”
She got her answer courtesy of Van Sant and his wickedly funny adaptation of To Die For, Joyce Maynard’s fictionalized take on the true story of Pamela Smart, the 22-year-old woman who seduced a teenage boy, then convinced him and a few of his friends to murder her husband for an insurance payout. Smart’s screen equivalent, the boundlessly narcissistic Suzanne Stone, has a far more compelling motive for manipulating underage fling Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) into offing her lug of a spouse, Larry (Matt Dillon). Suzanne harbors no greater desire than to be a primped, smiling face on the evening news, and she eventually settles for the nightly weather desk with an eye to the big time. Larry would rather have her at home cranking out kids and helping with his family’s red-sauce Italian joint, however, so he’s gotta go.
“You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV,” is Suzanne’s mission statement. The cruel yet antic script from the late, great Buck Henry (who also cameos as a scruffy teacher at Jimmy’s school) traces a line connecting the noisy, grabby free-for-all of spectacle media to the insatiable need for attention that defines the character. Production of To Die For halted one day so everyone on set could watch O.J. tearing down the 405 in his white Ford Bronco. Van Sant sought to capture a spirit of perverse public voyeurism with cheap videotape cinematography and through-the-fourth-wall interviews imitating small-screen aesthetics. The film sensationalizes itself as it goes, allowing passing glimpses through the Vaseline-smeared lens of cable news.
The amoral morass of crime coverage is a black lagoon from which this contemptible creature emerges. Suzanne’s personality has absorbed everything garish, inauthentic, and nasty about television in an effort to conquer it. She knows full well that sex sells, jumping into bed with a network executive while on her honeymoon after she gets the faintest whiff of career advancement. In a pinch, she’s all too willing to traffic in ugly profiling, referring to Jimmy and his friends (Alison Folland and a pre-fame Casey Affleck) as “a bunch of 16-year-old losers who grew up in trailers, whose parents sit around drinking and screwing their cousins.” She’s entirely free of redemptive qualities—precisely the sort of challenge Kidman was eager to sink her incisors into. Today, Suzanne looks like the most resolutely unsympathetic figure in a C.V. well-stocked with complicated and prickly characters. Currents of villainy flow through Kidman’s career, but she’s never plumbed a pit as bottomless.