Director: Richard Shepard
Writer: Richard Shepard, Eric Charmelo, Nicole Snyder
Producer: Bill Block, Stacey Reiss, Richard Shepard
Stars: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman
A former cello prodigy tracks down the pupil who replaced her, setting off a chain of events connected to a prestigious music academy’s dark secret.
“Don’t watch the trailer!” warned half of all people commenting on “The Perfection” prior to its wide release. “This is a movie best experienced knowing as little as possible going in,” advised the other half.
It’s a bit of a burden watching a movie with those kinds of cautions attached. Steeling myself for some sort of Shyamalan-esque thriller full of senses-shattering revelations that could drive a mind mad, I heightened my awareness level to ten and gave detective-like attention to every detail. Every word, every movement, every angle was a potential key to unlock a mystery I hadn’t even identified. I wasn’t trying to jump ahead of the movie. I merely meant to be ready for anything. Hype only holds whatever power an individual assigns to it, although early word assured “The Perfection’s” punch packed a wallop and I didn’t want to let my guard down for one second.
My efforts turned out to be unnecessary. I put extensive eyes on people who became inconsequential inclusions. I scanned for who touched who’s drink or other innocuous actions only for clues to end up existing in plain sight, in some cases telegraphing next steps with no subterfuge whatsoever.
I’m not implying “The Perfection” isn’t surprising, sneaky, or deviously designed. It’s all of those things. What I’m getting at is suggesting “The Perfection” is more straightforward than buzz might have you believe. Perhaps it’s preferable to relax expectations for something extraordinary and simply buckle in for a weird ride through an unusual thriller.
It’s easy to say now that I’ve come out of the other side, but having watched the trailer after the fact, I’m unconvinced total blindness is essential for getting the most out of the movie. For one thing, “The Perfection” doesn’t hinge on a singular twist like “The Crying Game” or “The Sixth Sense.” Like an astronaut in zero gravity, “The Perfection” flips up with down at will. The disorienting direction changes often enough that even if two twists get spoiled or predicted, the movie still has two more with which to wow you.
It’s also worth warning people triggered by trauma that rape and sexual abuse of children figure prominently in the plot. Yes, experiencing a movie without foreknowledge is always optimal. Yet keeping these details darkened could catch the wrong viewers unaware, and that would not be desirable for them.
“The Perfection” can’t keep all of its cats in the bag anyway. Ever since “Get Out” (review here), an eye of suspicion will always be trained on an Allison Williams character as someone with secrets up her sleeve. It’s not telling anyone something they can’t suss out themselves to say cello prodigy Charlotte is similarly someone to remain wary of.
Years ago, Charlotte left the prestigious Bachoff music conservatory to care for her ailing mother. Now that her long-suffering mom has died, Charlotte wants back in that world. She starts by contacting Anton and Paloma, the husband and wife behind Bachoff. They invite Charlotte to Shanghai to judge a young cellist competition alongside Lizzie, the protégée who took Charlotte’s place when she left.
Summarizing any more of the story is where it gets dicey. Just as Nostradamus did with his quatrains, we can instead throw plot points in the air out of sequence as vague inferences of things to come. Hallucinations. Mutations. Murder. Maiming. Conspiracies. Secret alliances. Most critically, revenge.
“The Perfection” keeps its feet under its craziness by anchoring to the intensity fueling Allison Williams and Logan Browning’s performances. Both women transfix with personalities that are equal parts mysterious, seductive, self-assured, and vulnerable. The seesaw of sympathies fluctuates frequently and each actress stays finely tuned to the specific degree of drama required by individual moments. It’s impossible to detach your eyes from the wonderful, often wild work they put on the screen.
Director Richard Shepard’s choices for putting “The Perfection” together technically aren’t always as consistent. Edges become perforated by occasionally abrupt editing oddities, particularly the cheap trickery of repeated “here’s what really happened” rewinds to fill in blanks retroactively. Evening things out, sumptuous shots and artful staging make it easy to willingly fall back under the cinematography’s spell. Hypnotic is an apt adjective, as “The Perfection” weaves a web of weirdness that is grounded as well as grotesque.
There may be legitimate questions worth asking regarding how “The Perfection” employs sexual assault as a story device and frames abuse survivors as fractured heroines with potentially problematic motivations. The film’s controversial themes will no doubt be dissected elsewhere under the scrutinizing light of a post-MeToo climate. Personally, I choose to view “The Perfection” as a horror movie made for midnight madness, without entering a dog in the fight about suggestive subtext.
Emulating the raw rape-revenge thrillers of 42ndStreet’s heyday, “The Perfection” is modern day grindhouse exploitation dressed up like a prestige Netflix event. It’s a little silly, a lot sleazy, but above all, it’s devilishly entertaining due to its odd audacity, sensational shocks, and satisfying insidiousness.
Review Score: 80