About all that’s missing from director and co-writer Richard Shepard’s gleefully nasty revenge thriller The Perfection are cackling, wisecracking appearances from The Cryptkeeper at the beginning and end of the film as bookends, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A pulpy, nasty, but entertaining piece of business, The Perfection keeps pulling the rug out from under the viewer in a bid to keep things as snappy (and knowingly ludicrous) as possible, stopping just short of wearing out its welcome and devolving into flat out silliness. It’s less like a Twilight Zone story, and more like something out of Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow. It’s fun, and it has something to say, but The Perfection at its best when delivering chills, one liners, or a 40-car highway pileup worth of twists and swerves.
Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) was a prodigy and rising star in the classical music world at the age of 14, but as an adult, she’s a burnt out shell of her former self. Charlotte, a cellist, was forced to leave her mentor (Steven Weber) and the prestigious Boston conservatory she had been attending when her mother took ill. A decade later and following her mother’s passing, Charlotte makes it a point to track down her former teacher and his new star pupil, Elizabeth Wells (Logan Browning), when they make an appearance in Shanghai, where they’re scouting for potential new students. Charlotte gets back into her mentor’s good graces and forms a fast, friendly, and romantic bond with Lizzie, who’s grateful to have someone to talk to about the burn out she’s starting to experience. Lizzie begs Charlotte to stick around while she takes a brief, off the grid vacation through the Chinese countryside, and that’s when The Perfection starts to become impossible to talk about without spoiling anything.
Shepard (who directed Williams on several episodes of Girls, but also made the films Dom Hemingway and The Matador) makes The Perfection into both an accessible parable about female empowerment for the post-Weinstein era and one of those thrillers that has a new, game changing twist every fifteen minutes or so. All of the characters in The Perfection are hiding darker secrets, and no one is being entirely honest about their ultimate goals. Most of this is pretty easy to figure out as soon as the first of Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder’s twists fall into place (via one of those satisfying, yet cliched movie moments where everything rewinds so the viewer can see how the trick was pulled). The Perfection is a film that cycles through settings and tones without losing a feel for its overall malevolent and borderline anarchistic sensibilities. It’s all kind of silly and unsubtle (especially when it comes to dropping visual clues), but also undoubtedly satisfying, especially when the blood starts flowing and all the characters’ cards are on the table.
The Perfection is well in line with Shepard’s other feature directorial efforts. It’s a fast paced story broken up into chapters, crammed with black humour and smash cuts, and enamoured with its own reveals and production design, which marries old school class and charm with flashes of surrealism. The only main difference with The Perfection is that Shepard’s other films weren’t outright thrillers, and he proves to be a better director of nasty potboilers than he is at pulling off semi-respectable middlebrow fare. For once in his career, The Perfection feels like the work of a filmmaker who’s taken the gloves off, and while it’s hardly meant to be taken seriously, Shepard has wrapped his potentially disreputable genre film in a potent message about the things artists tend to put up with or allow in the pursuit of success that could be causing them great psychological damage. Whiplash, this ain’t, but The Perfection certainly has greater things on its mind than cheap and easy thrills.
It’s hard to talk about the performances without giving away where The Perfection ultimately heads, but overall Browning acclimates herself slightly better to the material than Williams does. That’s probably because Williams has to juggle the weight of multiple plot twists revolving around her character, while Browning only has to deal with one of them. As the man pulling the strings, Weber is clearly having a blast balancing his character’s highfalutin sensibilities, digging his heels into the kind of role he’s never been afforded before as an actor. They all do a fine job keeping all of Shepard’s plates spinning, but Browning puts in the best and most memorable work here, emerging, like her character, as a true talent on the rise.
The Perfection is a film about people who take their art very seriously, but it won’t ever be mistaken for high art. It’s a refreshingly old school horror flick and morality tale designed to titillate, shock, and deliver a blood soaked message as memorably and entertainingly as possible. It’s not every horror fan’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly a welcome change of pace when compared to its modern day contemporaries. The Perfection is so far from the modern day horror movie standard that’s it’s practically a piece of classical composition in its own right.
The Perfection is available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, May 24, 2019.
Check out the trailer for The Perfection: