The Perfect Guy is a routine thriller as scripted by Tyger Williams, but director David M. Rosenthal uses convention to his advantage through an intriguing play with casting choices and surprising, bizarrely effective allusions to film history. Take a scene in which Carter (Michael Ealy), the unhinged ex-boyfriend of a Bay Area lobbyist, Leah (Sanaa Lathan), chases the woman’s neighbor (Tess Harper) in order to shut her up. The neighbor happens upon Carter while he’s tampering with Leah’s security system and soon finds herself clutched from behind and thrown down a flight of stairs, dead before she reaches the bottom. Rosenthal shoots the murder from the bottom of the steps, allowing full view of her body as it tumbles, a framing that almost explicitly recalls Lillian Gish’s fall in Birth of a Nation. And, indeed, the circumstance is comparable: a white woman falling to her death, fearful of a black male’s aggression. These parallels would be a stretch were Rosenthal not forcefully insistent that contemporary relations between race, gender, and class be placed on the chopping block throughout.
Ethnicity is constantly at the fore of The Perfect Guy without ever being explicitly addressed by any characters. Starring three African-American actors, the film encodes racial implications; for example, Leah has a white BFF, reversing racial-casting norms. Unlike Fatal Attraction, too, it’s fractured masculinity, not feminine hysteria, which must be dealt with. At the start of the film, Leah’s dating Dave (Morris Chestnut), but there’s a problem: He doesn’t want kids. She’s pushing 40 and needs more of a long-term commitment from her partner. The inciting exposition seems rather banal; a subsequent meet-cute with Carter inside a coffee shop turns into a weekend with her folks, where Carter enters the “boyfriend hall of fame” by taking her pops to a baseball game. But Rosenthal steadily livens things up by having two white men, on differing occasions, prey upon Leah. The second time, Carter snaps and viciously assaults the offender, prompting Leah’s newfound fear that her charming, well-to-do beau is potentially a psychopath.
Once the basic thriller shtick is in place, Rosenthal reveals that he’s been punking us, since what seemed to be simply thoughtless backdrops, like the bourgie, all-white-patron coffee shop or the all-white firms where Leah and Carter work, are actually meaningful articulations of ethnic difference. Leah’s job is prestigious (she’s an important member of her firm), but no one else in the office looks like her. When she leaves late one night, carefully trekking through an abandoned garage, one realizes it isn’t simply her isolation as a woman that makes her vulnerable, but more specifically as a black woman. Thus, the setting is a literal instance of her frailty, but also a metaphor for her workplace, where she’s doubly alone as a woman of color in a position of prominence.
More thematic haymakers are thrown along racial lines by Rosenthal. When a white detective roughs up Carter in an interrogation room, the white-on-black abuse of privacy and institutional power doesn’t necessarily lend Carter empathy, since he’s a stalking, murderous psychopath, but nor does it make it easy to take any satisfaction in his abuse. In a later scene, once Dave is back with Leah, he tells Carter: “You’re so far out of the picture, it isn’t even funny.” And indeed, The Perfect Guy isn’t laughing when it comes to Leah’s fears that she might lose her loved ones to an irrational, unthinking force of jealousy and insecurity. “He’s a robot,” one cop says to another of Carter, an assessment that resounds along racial lines, since Carter clearly embodies the short-fused violence that pervades not just Leah’s immediate life, but her entire well being as it pertains to her body, mind, and career. The last of those three prompts her to take action into her own hands, a resolution that’s disappointing for its tidy, vengeance-minded ends. Yet it’s no worse or ill advised than the ending of François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, in which a shotgun-wielding woman takes revenge upon her cheating husband. By the time Leah racks and fires, her pains are at least much deeper and more fully felt.