Back in 1995, the reviews for To Die For were full of phrases like "black comedy," "sharp satire," and "witty parody." I was spellbound by this movie, but I didn't find much to laugh about.
The plot is lifted from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. A woman is frustrated by her boring or boorish husband so she seduces some fool and persuades him to kill the husband.
But, in the screenplay by Buck Henry, based on a story by Joyce Maynard, there is a variation. The wife isn't bored as in Cain's iconic novel; she is ambitious. She wants to be a television personality, and she's willing to start her career by doing the weather on a local cable channel.
When the film was released, critics focused on the satire of America's obsession with celebrity, and there is some of that. But, in my humble opinion, they overlooked the film's chilling rendition of the archetypal noir plot.
For one thing, the fool is a teenager played by Joaquin Phoenix with heartbreaking vulnerability. And two other teenagers, brilliantly played by Casey Affleck and Alison Folland also fall under the wife's spell. That makes the noir a bit darker.
But most of all there is Nicole Kidman's performance. She compels belief as her character progresses from cute "little lady," to driven career woman, to ruthless exploiter, to deluded psychopath. This role should be studied and taught as an example of finding the arc of a character.
To be fair, back in 1995, critics recognized the high quality of the acting and writing, and of the direction by Gus Van Sant. Perhaps they came away laughing, because a woman with career ambitions was not taken so seriously then. After #MeToo, we're not laughing any more.