By Mike Dub
Director Gus Van Sant has always been sympathetic to the anguish of teenagers. With varying quality (anything from My Own Private Idaho to Finding Forrester) his films express the troubles of American youth with great sensitivity. Therefore, it’s no surprise that in To Die For, based on the true story of an aspiring journalist who coerced a teenage lover into killing her husband, Van Sant’s compassion lies with the boy, and his inability to navigate the waters of his first love.
The fictionalized version of the boy is Jimmy Emmett, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his breakout role (can it be almost twenty years already?), a not-so-lovable loser who falls victim to the manipulations of sexy femme fatale Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman). Jimmy is even less able to deal with his first love than most kids. Raised in squalor, he is the product of neglectful parents who would rather spend their time watching evangelists on cable television than engage with their son. Even more problematic, his intellect seems to hover right around the line of mental disability, Van Sant’s exaggeration of the impaired teenage brain, but only a slight one.
When he meets Suzanne for the first time, it is first love at first sight. She is married, but her true passion is television journalism. Trying to use her position as a barely watched local weatherperson as a launching pad to success, she has convinced her station manager to let her film a documentary on the lives of teenagers, which brings her together with Jimmy. When her husband (Matt Dillon) has ideas of settling down and having kids, she decides that killing him is her only way out, and she seduces Jimmy into helping her.
In films about love, especially teen love, characters are often placed in a hierarchy according to the purity of their feelings. At the bottom of the chain are those incapable of greater feelings than animalistic lust. At the top are characters whose attraction is loftier, more poetic. While his friend Russ (Casey Affleck) only thinks of Suzanne in terms of sex, Jimmy sees in her something more exotic than her sex appeal: “She’s clean.”
The film works as a whole largely because of Nicole Kidman’s excellent performance as a vapid, delusional egotist whose only ambition in life is to succeed on television. However, the power of Suzanne’s relationship with Jimmy rests largely on the shoulders of young Phoenix, who gives a brilliant, discomforting performance as an unintelligent teenager who is laughably strange, yet sadly sympathetic. Under the spell of an older, more experienced woman, Jimmy never had a chance.
Many films treat first love as a wistful, sentimental rite of passage that pushes one toward emotional maturity. Fittingly, To Die For satirizes those tender, nostalgic First Love films. For Jimmy, love becomes an all-consuming obsession.
However, Jimmy’s love is no less profound for the outcome. Even long after they have separated, Jimmy still loves Suzanne. He tells us with great warmth, even reverence, that he dreams about her every night.
The film’s expression of teenage love as a twisted cacophony of raging hormones and emotions is summarized by Jimmy in his opening lines. Directly addressing the camera in the present day, long after the events of the film have concluded, Jimmy conveys his love for Suzanne in a hauntingly strange elegy. “I never really gave a rat’s ass about the weather, [but] now… if it rains, or there’s lightning or thunder, or if it snows, I have to jack off.”
In To Die For, first love is not a quaint rite of passage. It is a dark concoction of confusion, obsession, powerlessness, and sexual manipulation. However, like so many characters from more nostalgic looks at first love, despite the pain he endures, Jimmy wouldn’t have traded his love for the world. Of course, that may just be because he’s not smart enough to make the deal.