On the heels of In The Bedroom comes another auspicious American debut - - a psychological drama that mounts an inter-generational battle of wits as compulsive as office gossip.
Relishing her finest film role in years, Stockard Channing plays high-powered exec Julie Styron, who offers an olive branch to young assistant Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) after firing her for arriving late to a presentation. The two wind up having plentiful drinks in an airport hotel that night, simultaneously bonding and rubbing each other up the wrong way as they fight for psychological supremacy.
Too many shots and an intense personal conversation later, and it emerges that Paula has reason to hate a slick corporate headhunter (Frederick Weller) who's arrived at the bar. Taking pity, Julie agrees to help her exact revenge - but there's more going on here than meets the eye.
Sporting snappy, rhythmic dialogue that recalls David Mamet, and matching it with seductively chilly visuals shot through a mainly static camera, writer-director Patrick Stettner turns up the heat by making the action ice cold. But what makes The Business Of Strangers soar is the strength of its performances. No one does `take-no-shit' better than Channing, and she layers it here with a lurking level of vulnerability. And Stiles matches her step for step, demonstrating that her spiky turn in 10 Things I Hate About You was no one-off.
If there's a weakness it's that the way one character is deceived by another doesn't quite convince, and the motivation that drives the story on is never properly revealed. But even if you walk away feeling the sting in the tale is muted, you'll still applaud the way The Business Of Strangers shifts gear from drama to thriller - - and does so superbly.
Director Patrick Stettner singles himself out as one to watch, crafting a tight, claustrophobic psycho-drama that crackles with tension. Great performances, too.