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TO DIE FOR out now on blu-ray

My all-time favorite Buck Henry film, Gus Van Sant’s TO DIE FOR, is now out on blu-ray. Perhaps Nicole Kidman’s greatest comic/ironic performance, she strikes the perfect balance as Suzanne Stone, the overly ambitious, small town weather woman who dreams of stardom and comes to realize her pizza-slinging husband is a massive hindrance. So she does what any aspiring career woman would do: she enlists some disaffected teenagers to kill him. And it’s actually both dramatic and funny. The entire film, in fact, is an exercise in tone perfection, and that’s really, really hard to do.

The film is a balancing act between the ridiculous with the believable. Characters are based on types, from Suzanne’s simple, doting husband Larry (Matt Dillon), to her shrill and suspicious sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas), to her doltish boss at the local TV station (Wayne Knight). Yet time and time again, screenwriter Buck Henry laces type with nuance, a deadly combination that ultimately allows these characters to leap from the screen, embracing both the cartoonish and the real. Kidman herself plays it hot, and I don’t just mean sexy. She’s in the brightest of colors, her expressions arch, pointed, and dramatic. We’re talking high volume. It works because other elements in the film dance with excess as well, but are always balanced with emotionally true performances and details that lift the material from any danger of cliché. And there’s Joaquin Phoenix as Jimmy Emmett, your typical no-IQ high school sloth, but the pain you feel watching as he gets spun into Suzanne’s web of darkness is palpable. Even though his actions are completely predictable, his pain is incredibly real, and it’s one of Phoenix’s strongest performances to date. Check it out.

–AH