The following review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival.
The Pitch: Hoo, boy. Allison Williams is Charlotte, a former world-class cellist who gave up on international superstardom to take care of her sick mother. After her mom dies, Charlotte meets up with her former teacher Anton (Steven Weber) in Shanghai, where he introduces her to Lizzie (Logan Browning), another pupil-turned-star cellist. Charlotte and Lizzie hit it off about as well as two people can, and end up in bed together. The next day, Charlotte joins Lizzie on a well-earned vacation, traveling through rural China. But as the two of them get ready to board their bus out of town, Lizzie suddenly gets sick, and the unraveling begins.
Twists, Turns, and Then Some: On one hand, the fact that The Perfection is being released through Netflix is a good thing, as it means that more people will see the film than would through a traditional theatrical release. On the other, It’s an absolute shame that so many people will experience this film alone, on the couch, their eyes likely splitting time between the movie and other screens. The Perfection is a film perfectly suited to the theatrical experience, for people to gather together with friends and loved ones and a bunch of total strangers in a single room to shout “what the hell is going on?!” over and over again. While The Perfection is ostensibly a thriller, it has more than a little horror in its DNA. Do yourself a favor, and do not watch it alone.
Genres aside, a lot of movies with a logline similar to this one’s tend to fall into the “so bad it’s good” camp, guilty pleasures and cult classics where the filmmaker’s choices get away from them and turn either awful or hilarious — usually a bit of both. But that’s not the case here: Director Richard Shepard (who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) knows exactly what’s he’s doing. The film’s campy touches are intentional, the plotting a series of blind curves that obscure its ultimate destination. It starts as a seeming erotic thriller before pivoting into a nightmarish plague story, a Black Swan-esque psychodrama, and a ferociously Jacobean revenge flick. At points the film runs itself through a VHS rewind before letting sequences play out again, this time with their true meaning revealed. It wants to shock you, but that shock comes with a purpose.
Crazy Like a Fox: Once you finally reach the center of The Perfection’s labyrinthine plot contortions, what you find is a story about trauma. And it’s at this moment that the film’s previous hour snaps into focus. It hasn’t been dancing around its subject matter so much as digging its way through layer after layer of self-defenses, disabling coping mechanisms and clearing out mental blocks until the characters are left with nothing but the naked truth. If it seems like the film is cycling through genres out of desperation, that’s partially true; but it’s the desperation of someone trying with all their might to forget the terrible things that have been done to them. The pointed eroticism of Charlotte and Lizzie’s early scenes is played partly for laughs, but The Perfection uses those surface-level softcore beats as an entry point for its subversive descent into the depths of female rage and despair.
In the meantime, the thematic contortions and genre-hopping sense of play make the film incredibly fun, especially in its first half, as unexpected plot developments are paired with a grindhouse willingness to push boundaries. (The sequence set on the rural bus takes the cake, as Lizzie goes from sick to really sick to I-just-vomited-and-my-puke-is-filled-with-writhing-maggots sick.) There’s gore, too, and plenty of it. If there’s a single complaint to be made here, it’s that the film’s reliance on CGI for some of the gore and bug effects makes one long for the glory days of Tom Savini. The tactile physicality of old-school practical effects would have been right at home here.
The Perfection’s lowbrow, sensationalistic approach to some incredibly sensitive subject matter will likely rub some the wrong way — and they wouldn’t be wrong to object. The film’s touches of high camp — depicting a world in which classical cellists are held in the same high esteem that the John Wick films reserve for high-end assassins — sit uneasily against its final half-hour, when its desire to entertain runs up against material that, it can be argued, should be treated delicately — a mode in which The Perfection has zero interest. But grindhouse cinema has always served as a kind of psychic American clearing house, a place where all our worst impulses and experiences are worked out with minimal budgets and maximum gore. The Perfection smartly knows when to cut and when to let the camera’s gaze linger. The truly horrifying things stay horrifying — and mostly offscreen.
We Need to Talk About Allison: After Get Out, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Williams being typecast as an evil, patrician white woman in the years to come, and The Perfection uses that idea to toy with audience expectations — capitalizing on Williams’ superb performances in both that film and this one like a house of mirrors. The movie opens with a quiet, eerily serene Charlotte sitting by her mother’s deathbed, flash-cutting to a younger version of herself screaming out in pain. Not too long after, another shot reveals scars from an earlier suicide attempt. Charlotte’s friendly, shy demeanor is colored not only by these moments, but by the collective memory of Williams dangling those car keys in front of poor Chris. She’s clearly not who she appears to be.
And while she definitely isn’t, it’s not in the way you think — which is exactly what The Perfection wants. After diving even deeper into Charlotte’s seeming villainy — complete with a laugh-out-loud moment where she helpfully offers Lizzie a meat cleaver — the film doubles back to reveal more complex moral calculations at work. Shepard is constantly trying to unmoor his audience, and Williams — who he worked with on Girls — is a huge part of that uncertain atmosphere. We expect certain things of her in the same way that we expect things from Weber, who plays Anton with the right mixture of superficial charm and high-born condescension. And as Browning has a less fixed persona than either of her two co-stars, the movie’s mid-stream pivot around her character pays off. Like us, she’s trying to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.
The Verdict: The Perfection is a smart play for Netflix, as it seems destined to generate a lot of heat on social media. Yet the film is more than an accumulation of shocking twists and surprises. It’s a tawdry but perceptive meditation on the ways that victims of abuse build walls to protect themselves from harm — and the great lengths that someone would have to go to knock those walls down. It’s a hell of a journey; truly, this movie is a wild-ass ride. But the destination is also worth the trip.
Where’s It Playing? The Perfection premieres on Netflix on May 24th.