Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Intimate Stranger (Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran a surprisingly good Lifetime TV-movie I’d recorded over the weekend: Intimate Stranger, a 2006 production whose synopsis in TV Guide (“A single mom falls in love with a younger man”), I was expecting one of those stories in which a middle-aged woman falls in love with a hot young hunk and the dramatic issues are either her own concerns about how long she can hold him or her friends’ disapproval of the age gap in the relationship. Instead it was a tale about the boyfriend from heaven who turns out to be the boyfriend from hell: Karen Reese (Kari Matchett) is a successful investment banker at a firm in Kansas City, Kansas who divorced her husband John (Corey Livingstone) because she found him too controlling — and who has that problem with a number of men she’s dated since, including Randy (unseen in the film), whom she dumped after three dates, but whom she suspects of stalking her.

Into her life comes fellow investment banker Denis Teague (Peter Outerbridge) — perhaps because much of this movie was shot in Canada, the imdb.com entry on it spells his first name in the British style — who sweeps her off her feet and ends up in bed with her (giving us an excuse for a quite good Lifetime-trademark soft-core porn scene) — and, perhaps more importantly, winning over her family and especially her young son Justin (Matthew Knight). What makes this above-average for Lifetime is the substantial script construction by Michael Vickerman and the accomplished direction by Bert Kish, who shows himself equally adept at romance and suspense. Early on Vickerman’s script drops a hint at Denis’s real agenda when he lets slip to Karen, “I’ve studied you and everything you like,” but she doesn’t pick up on the hint and it goes by.

It turns out Denis figured out a way to get into the attic of Karen’s house and used it to spy on her well before they ever formally met, so that when he appeared in her life he knew everything about her and everything he’d need to appear to be for her to see him as her perfect man. When she tells him he’s going too fast and needs to back off, he turns on her and starts sending her unwelcome gifts and doing hang-up phone calls on her, to panic her into thinking that her last boyfriend is stalking her and thereby make her more dependent on him — and in a florid but exciting finish he kidnaps and threatens to kill her, they drive out to a deserted country road, she deliberately crashes the car (had she seen Dangerous?) and wrests back from him the (unlicensed) gun he stole from her earlier and is about to shoot him when the police, alerted by a 911 call from her son, come to the scene and threaten to shoot her unless she puts the gun down and allows them to take him alive — which she does.

There are well-done complexities and bits of symbolism in the script — Denis is a lifelong butterfly collector (the sort of person who kills them, mounts them between panes of glass and displays them that way), and though he presents that as an innocent childhood hobby that’s become lifelong, it grosses out Justin when he takes him on a butterfly-hunting trip and eventually it becomes a metaphor for his character much the way it did in Madama Butterfly (in which Cio-Cio-San briefly suspects Pinkerton of being after her for his collection the way Americans catch real butterflies, stick them with pins, kill and display them). Denis’s butterfly-collecting hobby also establishes that he knows how to use chloroform, with which he sneaks into Karen’s bedroom in order to drug her so she’ll get sick and screw up her ability to function at work; he also tries a few other crazy-making techniques on her, including Second Woman-like plot complications in which Karen’s ex-husband John complains that he never got an invitation to Justin’s birthday party (Karen gave the invitations to Denis to mail) and an important report for work she was working on at home disappears just as she’s finished it and is about to turn it in. (Didn’t she have it backed up on her computer? She doesn’t even seem to have a computer, a major anachronism in a film about an urban professional made in 2006.)

There are a few wince-inducing lines and bits of plot construction, but overall Intimate Stranger (a marvelous title) is an exciting, emotionally stimulating and moving film about an obsessive love (Vickerman keeps the reasons for Denis’s obsession powerfully ambiguous instead of throwing in some movie-cliché “explanation” of them) turned into destructive mania — and Peter Outerbridge as Denis isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is rather tall, gangly, sandy-haired and balding: not unattractive (we certainly don’t ask ourselves, “What does Karen see in him?”) but not exactly Mr. Babe Magnet either. It’s also nice at the end to see Karen paired up with Alex (Jonas Chernick), her five-years-younger boss who’s been more-or-less seriously cruising her all through the movie and to whom she suddenly but understandably turns to for support after the disaster with Denis.