16 April 2007 | Chris_Docker
A quiet B-movie, worth watching for those who like to follow murder-mystery plots
Have you ever met someone who you didn't like at first but, after you made an effort, they kinda got your attention?
I had to make the effort with Perfect Stranger. It is not an easy movie to like. Its direction seems pedestrian, the camera-work and editing wanting, and the acting wasted. The characters are not very nice people, but not evil enough to be anti-heroes.
But let's work backwards. It has a killer ending. If you worked hard to follow the complex plot, your efforts pay off. That makes you feel good. Like listening to a person you can't get away from who has droned for an hour and a half and then suddenly what they are saying makes a warped kind of sense. The plot might be convoluted, but I have to admire the way it fits the horrible, cynical pieces together. An hour afterwards, it reminds me of old B-movies that you might dig up and pick little gems from their rotting carcass.
So what's it about? Well, it could be about anything - no, that's me being too disingenuous. It's a mystery thriller. A whodunnit. It has Halle Berry moving through several personas and Bruce Willis being quite disgusting and yet getting our sympathies. She's an investigative reporter. He's the head of an advertising agency. Then there's some fabulous shots from the newly-completed 7 World Trade Center, the first of the new buildings on the former WTC site. Look out for stunning wraparound views of Lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and New Jersey.
Annoyingly, the film doesn't glamorise its strengths. A key early conversation between Halle Berry (Rowena) and her pal Grace is almost overpowered by the background noise of the subway trains. Almost, but not quite - are you paying attention? The views of New York are more impressive when you think back to them. But at the time we see them, we are trying to figure out what kind of game Harrison Hill is playing. Similarly, an early scene of outrage that could have grandstanded Berry's acting talents is subsumed into a very ordinary establishing shot. But condemn it early on at your peril. Dismiss it and you forego the enjoyment of a well-constructed mystery, even if it doesn't live up to the star ratings its big names might suggest. This film doesn't follow the 'good' rules, you long for something to spice it up. Some flashy camera-work, fancy edits maybe. Or something sexy with Halle Berry's legs? And you don't get much of that. Does the story have you by the balls yet? Probably not. "Stroke a man's (beep), you get him for one night - stroke his ego and you get him for life." Grace's comment only hits us after we leave the cinema. It might not be that simple, but Rowena, like any good journalist, only does 'sexy' here for effect.
Rowena's pal winds up dead. Very dead. Horribly, bloated, facelessly dead. At this point, I was still thinking how they 'should' have directed the movie to give it more impact. Later on, I appreciate the understated style. It also leaves you free to follow the plot more carefully than if you are having clues and red herrings rammed down your throat.
Rowena takes on another identity to get a job at Harrison Hill's agency, as well as some more online personas. The powerful Mr Hill seems to have been in everyone's pants (even though he has a genuinely stunning wife). Yet Willis plays the role with such honesty that we almost don't want him to get caught out. He might be a sleaze but Rowena's co-investigator, Miles, is a sleaze-ball of a different kind. Miles does online jiggery-pokery to find out stuff for Rowena. But he is also a different kind of twisted power-tripper and runs rings around her.
Perfect Stranger lulls us into moral condemnation. Its outlook of the world is totally cynical. "Show me a beautiful woman and I'll show you a man who's tired of (beep)ing her," confides a Hill employee to Berry. When you meet the perfect stranger do you assume the best? Or do you assume the worst?
"To a certain extent, everybody lives a double life," says Academy Award winner Halle Berry. "We're all complicated beings; we're different people all the time - for example, a woman might act differently at work than she does at home. We all hide something, even from our best friends. This movie highlights that and takes it to the next level, showing what we're capable of when we're forced to come to terms with it."
OK, we know that nothing and no-one is perfect, and we accept that they everyone and everything is 'packaged', right down to the Veronica Secret gift bag that the ad agency is giving away. But ultimately Perfect Stranger is packaged as carelessly as if it were wrapped in second-hand gift wrap. That makes it easy to dismiss. Or loathe. But its self-effacing, redeeming qualities are perhaps sufficient not to ignore. Mystery thriller geeks, get your ticket now, before it is condemned to obscurity.
(note - I have censored certain words from the quotes from the film for this site)