Perfect Stranger

Director: James Foley

Despite starring Academy Award winner Halle Berry and being crafted by the man who directed such groundbreaking works as At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross, filmmaker James Foley’s latest drama Perfect Stranger seemed to be as doomed for box office failure as it was in its choices of shooting locations. According to IMDB, originally the film-- which was sent to theatres with the title Lie after Lie-- was set in New Orleans but after Hurricane Katrina hit, it was relocated to New York City and became the first feature to be filmed at ground zero, taking place in one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The previews, which made the film look like the type of seedy sexy thrillers that Michael Douglas made a career out of in the late 1980’s and early 90’s didn’t help business along with a plethora of negative reviews from critics across the board all of whom stated that again, in the tradition of Gothika and Catwoman, Ms. Berry had chosen yet another stinker. However, while it isn’t high art by any means, I was actually surprised by how enjoyable the film was for what it set out to be—a nice, dark little thriller filled with surprises and characters that grew more complicated with each passing minute. Although most critics and viewers had trouble accepting the major twist evident in the final few minutes, like The Prestige (although it’s not in the same league), Perfect Stranger had me completely fooled and interested enough that I’m going to have to take another look down the road to see when the hints were dropped.

When the movie opens, Berry manages to pull the wool over a lying politician’s eyes, complimenting him until he takes the bait as she reveals some rather disturbing facts she was planning to print in the paper under her pseudonym David Shane. Writing under a male’s name is one of many disguises seemingly preferred by Berry in the film—her main character named Rowena Price seems to be one of those people (much like the frequent confessions of actors in James Lipton’s Actors Studio) who are most comfortable when playing someone else. After her troubled friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) ends up brutally murdered, Price enlists the help of her techie friend Miles (Giovanni Ribisi alternately charismatic, creepy and as chameleon-like as Berry) who is in love with Rowena enough to help her get a job working for the man she assumes is responsible for Grace’s death—advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). As Hill, Willis is subtle and seems a bit uninterested by his underwritten role as a smarmy man who, although married, has quite a long list of interoffice relationships gone bad, harassment suits and enjoys spicy online chats that Berry uses to snare Hill and try to prove that he was the dangerous online friend who had killed Grace.

While those who know more than the average bear about computers will be a little frustrated by some of the seemingly obvious ways the characters can get around some of the technical hiccups that abound in getting evidence that Hill is the online creep, it’s easily forgiven as the film is filled with enough switches in characterization and plot development that we’re always involved. Berry and especially Ribisi, who would’ve made a far more interesting “villain” than Wilis’s character, turn in excellent performances. San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle was brave enough to stand out from the pack of dissent to share his belief in his review that, “for those who are interested in Berry as both an actress and screen presence, this is one of the most satisfying films she has ever made. It capitalizes on her strengths and she owns the picture from start to finish,” with her “shrewd, intelligent and captivating performance.” Utilizing a cool, warm and impersonal palette of colors Foley and the art director named “hot fudge,” according to the DVD featurette, the film plays even better on the small screen and provides a worthwhile diversion for Berry fans that aren’t going to get too hung up by some of the inconsistencies. However, as one always enthralled by great character actors, it’s Ribisi who we find most unsettling. Mick LaSalle explains that “Ribisi is even more arresting [than Willis] as Rowena’s pal, partner and love-starved admirer… Like Berry, he plays every moment full out, showing us everything, and it’s up to us to decide what to make of it.”