Ah, the erotic, psychological thiller! Is there any more manufactured, self-important, improperly named genre? Though classifying titles may seem arbitrary, James Foley’s Perfect Stranger certainly falls under the erotic-psychological-thiller’s unscrupulous umbrella. But what is a psychological thriller? What makes a “psych-thriller” different from a regular thriller or, for that matter, from a drama? And what’s the difference between a psychological thriller and an erotic thriller? Can a movie be an erotic, psychological thriller – or are those two, irresolvable qualifying adjectives?
All these issues must have been going through screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki’s head while writing Perfect Stranger. This level of self-awareness is the only excuse for creating such an unmotivated, thoughtless film. Clearly, he wanted to make a movie that hood-winked the audience, kept them entertained through sex, didn’t follow any internal logic, and could all be blanketed by a surprise ending. He searched through his available genres—Action? No; Horror? No—and deduced his screenplay would have to be an erotic psychological thriller. After a quick evocation of every genre convention, Perfect Stranger was born.
Halle Berry plays a hard-hitting undercover reporter, Rowenna Price, investigating her friend’s gruesome murder. With the help of her research partner, Miles, an eccentric, Rowenna-obsessed Giovani Ribisi, Ro discovers that all roads point to womanizing, ad executive, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). And, through a series of sidetracking red herrings and non-clues, the audience is left guessing throughout the entire film, waiting for the ending to blind-side them with previously unrevealed motives and re-edited flashbacks—dashing any shred of trust we had in the film.
Though the movie’s faults are copious, I’d like to first focus on some of the positives. Foley’s direction is concise, with mis-en-scene reminiscent of his 2003, slick, heist film, Confidence, complete with tight close-ups, contrasted colors, and a glossy sheen over everything. In addition, Willis’ insouciance suits his role perfectly; Ribisi fabricates a character out of nothing; and Berry is really, really hot. This, however, is where the craftsmanship ends as these clearly well-paid stars (the only possible reason to be attached to such a project) can only carry the film so far. Once we get past Berry perfuming her inner thigh, the erotic-thriller re-hashes sink in, and we’re treated to, what seems like, Basic Instinct 7 (without any of the smoky noir this totally invented Veerhoeven sequel might contain).
Most of the blame for Perfect Stranger falls on the script’s shaky shoulders. Almost every line is tailored to serve as a flashback for when the killer is finally revealed, so the audience can gasp and say, “So that’s what [he/she] meant!” Only so many times can we think, “So what did she mean by that?” and keep coming up empty. Lines are so rooted in the future, they tend to lose their present. Plus, subtlety is key in any script’s effectiveness; overusing foreshadowing leaves the audience feeling bludgeoned to death. These are the pangs of a script too self-aware.
However, with language this conscious, you’d at least expect up-to-date dialogue, but the film’s Web 1.0-status is severely distracting: “Go on the website and take the virtual tour,” “Damn! My computer’s frozen and Veronica’s face is the screensaver!”, “Why is my name on this text [message]?”, “Since you’re a chatroom virgin, I think you should practice on-line flirting.” Lines like these are everywhere and sound akin to seventh grader in 1999; just the phrase “Hotmail account” is enough to send me into a Y2K-fueled time warp.
Furthermore, 1999 is arguably the last time a steamy cyber-sex scene, like the one between Berry and Willis, could even dream of working (unless, for some reason, Swinfan tickles your fancy). Scripts are certainly allowed to sit on the shelf for a year or two, but if your main action is centered on severely out-dated technology, trying to appear tech-savvy reveals a lack of care.
But, in the end, it’s not so much the endless heavy-handed clues, outmoded dialogue, or totally untrustworthy traits of the main characters that make the movie so unforgivable; it’s the purposeless ending that eschews all previous traits, dialogue and clues. Instead of building all the elements together forming a cohesive conclusion, the movie gives a random ending, seemingly picked out of a hat, and levels the movie’s elements to the ground.
Randomly assigning blame to one of the characters, then writing surprise back-story to support the findings doesn’t exactly reward your audience with an earned ending. Instead, every wayward line or suspicious glare you might have remembered proves utterly pointless. Unsurprisingly, different endings were filmed with each of the main characters receiving guilt—I’m sure it was test audiences who decided the “real” killer.
It’s ironic; among all the consciously planted lines advancing movie’s themes, it’s this line from Harrison Hill that speaks best about Perfect Stranger as a whole: “It’s not ‘kill or be killed’ anymore; it’s ‘kill, or become irrelevant.’” You’d think a script as aware as this one would catch such a telling line. Good try, Perfect Stranger, but you were irrelevant before I stopped surfing chatrooms.