The film includes cameos by George Segal, David Cronenberg, author Maynard, and screenwriter Henry. It features original music by Danny Elfman.
Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) dreams of being a world-famous news anchor. To that end, she marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), due to mutual attraction and because she believes his family business will keep her financially comfortable, and she starts attempting to climb the network news ladder, beginning as a meteorologist at a local cable station, WWEN.
When Larry starts asking her to take time off from her career to start a family, she immediately begins plotting to get rid of him. To this end, she uses the subjects of her TV documentary, a high school project called "Teens Speak Out", and seduces one of her students, Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix), and manipulates him and his friends, delinquent Russell Hines (Casey Affleck) and shy Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland), into killing Larry. With the help of Russell and Lydia, Jimmy ultimately commits the murder.
Though Larry's death is ruled a burglary-murder, the police begin investigating when they stumble across a "Teens Speak Out" video of Suzanne at Jimmy's school in which Jimmy discreetly hints at a relationship with Suzanne, provided by her boss, Ed Grant (Wayne Knight). Jimmy, Russell and Lydia are arrested. Lydia makes a deal with the police to converse with Suzanne while wearing a wiretap, and Suzanne unwittingly reveals her hand in the murder. Despite this undeniable proof of Suzanne's guilt, however, she is acquitted in court, on the basis that the police had resorted to entrapment, and walks free. Suzanne basks in the media spotlight as she talks to reporters about Larry's death, and fabricates a story about her husband being a drug addict and being murdered by Jimmy and Russell as his dealers. Jimmy and Russell are sentenced to life in prison, though Russell appeals against his sentence and receives sixteen years instead, while Lydia is released on probation for her cooperation.
Larry's father, Joe (Dan Hedaya), sees Suzanne lying about Larry on television and realizes that Suzanne was behind his son's murder. He then uses his Mafia connections to have her murdered. The hitman (David Cronenberg) lures Suzanne away from her home by pretending to be interested in broadcasting her life story, kills her, and then buries her under a frozen lake. Lydia gains national attention by telling her side of the story in a television interview, becoming a celebrity. Larry's sister, Janice (Illeana Douglas), practices her figure skating on the frozen lake where Suzanne's corpse is hidden.
To Die For is a mixture of styles, combining a traditional drama with darkly comic direct-to-camera monologues by Kidman's character, and mockumentary interviews, some tragic, with certain of the other characters in the film.
The film and the novel it is based on were both inspired by the facts that emerged during the trial of Pamela Smart, a school media services coordinator who was imprisoned for seducing a 16-year-old student and convincing him to kill her husband.
The role of Suzanne Stone was originally offered to Meg Ryan, who turned down the part and the $5 million salary offered. Kidman, who was later cast in the role, was paid $2 million.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. To Die For currently holds an 87% "certified fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews.
Katherine Ramsland of Crime Library describes the film as an example of a work displaying women with antisocial personalities; Ramsland describes Suzanne as a "manipulator extraordinaire" who harms people through third parties.
In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called the film "an irresistible black comedy and a wicked delight" and added, "[it] takes aim at tabloid ethics and hits a solid bull's-eye, with Ms. Kidman's teasingly beautiful Suzanne as the most alluring of media-mad monsters. The target is broad, but Gus Van Sant's film is too expertly sharp and funny for that to matter; instead, it shows off this director's slyness better than any of his work since Drugstore Cowboy ... Both Mr. Van Sant and Ms. Kidman have reinvented themselves miraculously for this occasion, which brings out the best in all concerned."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said of Kidman, "[she] brings to the role layers of meaning, intention and impulse. Telling her story in close-up – as she does throughout the film – Kidman lets you see the calculation, the wheels turning, the transparent efforts to charm that succeed in charming all the same ... her beauty and magnetism are electric. Undeniably she belongs on camera, which means it's equally undeniable that Suzanne belongs on camera. That in itself is an irony, a commentary or both."
Emanuel Levy wrote, "mean-spirited satire, told in mock-tabloid style, this film features the best performance of Nicole Kidman to date (better than The Hours for which she won an Oscar), as an amoral small-town girl obsessed with becoming a TV star."
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Suzanne Stone – Nominated Villain
AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – Nominated