I love roller coasters. My favorite part is that uphill climb. That long, slow pull, listening to the click of the chain, feeling the car jerk along. The anticipation. What makes that part of the ride the best is knowing that at the top of the hill, you’re gonna start down and you’re gonna start down fast. The climb is the opportunity to let all the fear invade your system, to let it take hold, to really start to get nervous, so when you finally crest at the top, you can breathe again and just enjoy the ride. You should be able to see a twist or turn or loop coming but still get surprised when it actually hits. And when you think the ride is over, just when you think you’re done, they slam on the brakes and give you one more, unexpected jolt before easing you back into the station.
A good thriller should make you feel the same way. There should be that long, slow build of set-up followed by non-stop, edge of your seat excitement until the final credits role. There should be twists and turns which, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see coming but will still surprise you when you see how they manifest. And when the lights come up, you should be out of breath and ready to see it all over again, to see if the twists you remember are just as good the second time around.
Unfortunately, Perfect Stranger is not a good thriller. Oh, it tries. It tries very hard. But in the end, it just misses the mark. There’s a long, slow build-up and your anticipation rises and then, just as you hit the crest… there’s more build-up, a tiny little bunny-hill of a drop and then you’re right back in the station, wondering where your hour-forty went.
With Stranger, Halle Berry plays Rowena, an investigative journalist who will fight for the truth no matter the cost. She has principles AND morals. We know this because in the first ten minutes, she quits her job over Integrity (yes, that’s a capital “I”). On her way out of the bar where she just told her boss to shove it, she is chased down by an old friend who weaves a tale of marital infidelity (her boyfriend’s). This old friend, Grace by name, wants to exact a little revenge on said boyfriend, who just happens to be a multi-millionaire ad agency executive and begs Ro to help her out. A week later, that friend turns up dead. What are the odds? But it’s a movie, so we accept it and we sit back, feeling the ‘click click’ of the chain pulling us up. We get all the anticipation and earmarks of the thriller at that point: Bruce Willis as the charmingly smarmy ad exec, Giovanni Ribisi as the lovelorn yet creepy best friend of Halle Berry, the spunky yet sexy truth seeker. There are blind alleys and plot twists and none of them matter because at no point do we care about solving this murder. There is never any question any of if these characters are in any danger whatsoever. Even when Berry infiltrates the bad guy’s lair and gets caught, Willis’ only violent move is to tell her that “sometimes you want to do bad things … but you don’t.”
Only I kinda wish they would. The bad things people do in this film don’t really rate on any type of “bad-meter,” especially in 2007. Like the now disappointing Coney Island coasters of days gone by, we need more loops and turns these days and we need our bad guys to be really, really bad. Sure, we have liars and cheats, sexual deviants and yes, even a cold-blooded killer, but in the end, Perfect Stranger just breaks the one rule of thrillers… it’s not thrilling.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)