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There’s a big difference between a film offering up ingenious plot twists designed to keep you guessing and one simply yanking your chain. The new horror thriller directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador, Dom Hemingway) too often blurs that distinction, ultimately feeling more manipulative than clever. Nonetheless, The Perfection, premiering on Netflix, is a stylishly made, nail-biting effort that proves consistently engrossing. The film also proves that should Allison Williams desire to be the new scream queen, her work here and in Get Out proves that she’s more than worthy of the title.
This is one of those films for which describing the plot in any detail would essentially constitute a spoiler. But I can talk about the basic setup of the screenplay by Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, which divides the film into four distinct and quite different chapters. We’re first introduced to Charlotte (Williams), a former teenage cello prodigy who was forced to give up her studies at an elite music academy to care for her invalid mother. After her mother passes away 10 years later, Charlotte heads to Shanghai at the invitation of her former instructor Anton (Steven Weber) and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), to be a judge in a music competition. There she meets Elizabeth (Logan Browning, of Netflix’s Dear White People), who has followed in Charlotte’s footsteps in being the school’s marquee talent.
RELEASE DATE May 24, 2019
Rather than being competitive with each other, the two young women hit if off. So well, in fact, that they wind up in bed together. Elizabeth invites Charlotte to join her in exploring rural China, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Elizabeth becomes seriously ill while riding a rickety bus filled mostly with non-English-speaking Chinese people, in a protracted sequence that at first will merely cause shudders in anyone who’s felt ill while traveling before it ratchets up in intensity to truly horrifying proportions.
It’s at the end of that gruesome episode that the story rewinds — literally, with the film racing backward until a point at which it’s revealed that things haven’t been at all what they seem. It’s a trick that the film plays more than once, which is where it should have stopped. The dramatic plot revelations about the characters and their motivations become increasingly ludicrous — although, to be fair, they’re never less than compelling.
Director Shepard provides some arresting sequences even of the non-horror variety, such as a crosscutting montage between Charlotte and Elizabeth duetting on cello and making love that proves that the musical instrument easily lends itself to erotic fantasies. But the film is mainly interested in grossing out viewers via lengthy episodes of the body horror and torture porn variety that should well satisfy connoisseurs of the perverse while possibly discouraging young people from applying to prestigious music academies.
The performers give their all to the luridly gothic material. Williams and Browning deliver complex, shaded performances that effectively keep you guessing about their characters, and Weber provides just the right level of smarminess as the instructor who’s looking for more from his students than just talent.
Production: Capstone Film Group
Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman
Director: Richard Shepard
Screenwriters: Richard Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo, Nicole Snyder
Producers: Bill Block, Stacey Reiss, Richard Shepard
Director of photography: Vanja Cernjul
Production designer: John Marcynuk
Costume designer: Beverley Huynh
Editor: David Dean
Composer: Paul Haslinger
Casting: Kara Eide, Jennifer Euston, Kris Woz
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