'Perfect': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of SXSW
A sensory trip wrapped around a kind of Frankenstein tale.

Steven Soderbergh exec produces Eddie Alcazar's hyperstylized sci-fi feature debut.

A hallucinatory extrapolation of current trends in cosmetic enhancement, Eddie Alcazar's Perfect goes to an exclusive retreat where, perhaps, even the stain of murder might be smoothed away like a patch of rough skin. The kind of ambitious, hyperstylized sci-fi that tends to be either hailed as visionary or dismissed entirely, it will likely benefit from the support of executive producer Steven Soderbergh, though that needle-tipping effect may not mean much in commercial terms.

We meet an unnamed young man (Garrett Wareing) as he makes a bleary, desperate phone call to his mother. She's out "with the girls" and doesn't want to be bothered, but the nature of his problem gets her attention: His girlfriend's body lies murdered beside him.

Cut to him inside a long stretch limo, with mom (Abbie Cornish) reclining nonchalantly on another seat. They're going someplace where this will all be taken care of, and we get the impression she has spent time there as well — perhaps a stay that explains why the mother looks no older than her son. Here and in their video-phone calls later, Cornish disconcertingly speaks some of the caring language of mothering — trying to steer the boy away from troubling thoughts — from a distance, as if parenting is a hobby she lost interest in some time ago but can't quite abandon. "I'd hoped that you would turn out different," she admits at one point, sounding less cruel than reflective.

The boy arrives at what could be a spa retreat with a hedonistic undercurrent. Lithe bodies lounge, meditate or watch each other glide through the pool. In the distance, a physically unlikely rock formation sits among lush tropical vegetation. (We're in the John Lautner-designed Los Angeles house most famous as Jackie Treehorn's pad in The Big Lebowski, but city lights have been digitally replaced with this exotic vista.)

The boy finds his luxurious room and starts receiving instructions through an intercom from a woman he'll never meet. After a settling-in period, in which he is urged to "choose your path," the voice sends him an "upgrade pack": He's supposed to slice a square of skin on his cheek, pull out a hunk of flesh and replace the bloody, used stuff with a pristine slab of clear plastic. It's the first of many self-surgeries he will conduct, each of which has a druglike effect on his perception along with whatever it's supposed to be doing to his, er, soul.

The film courses throughout with multiple mysterious voiceovers, most of them philosophical musings on events or topics we're not privy to. We realize we're mostly hearing from the man behind this place (Maurice Compte), who speaks at one point of having created automatons. So, we learn, many of the people here are as robotic as they seem; but what is their role in his actual patients' treatment? Or are any of the patients human?

While viewers either cast about for clues or surrender to the experience, the boy has his own figuring-out to do. He meets Sarah (Courtney Eaton), an eerily familiar young woman; though he feels pulled to spend time with her, she is farther along in her treatment, and says "I see you like a man sees an ant." So much for a romance of equals. He's also having visions, like past-life memories — dread-filled, black-and-white scenes of an ancient culture and human sacrifice — in which he seems to identify with the god-king.

Alcazar and his collaborators create a seductive world for us here, but while Ted Kupper's script answers some questions in the end, most of the mystery stays unsettled. While some will embrace the shards as a Shane Carruth-like brain-teaser, the movie is ultimately too reflective of its genetically-engineered subjects — soulless under an entrancing veneer. That won't keep it from serving as a midnight accompaniment to psychedelics on a streaming platform near you. In that role, the pic will live up to its name.

Production company: Brainfeeder Films
Cast: Garrett Wareing, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Maurice Compte, Abbie Cornish, Martin Sensmeier, Sarah McDaniel, Chris Santos, Leonardo Nam, Regan 'Busdriver' Farquhar
Director: Eddie Alcazar
Screenwriter: Ted Kupper
Producers: Eddie Alcazar, Javier Lovato
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, Flying Lotus, Marco Vicini, Phil Hoelting, Matthias Koenigswieser, Adam Silvestri, Rooter Wareing, Nikki Pederson
Director of photography: Matthias Koenigswieser
Production designers: Calder Greenwood, Paul Rice, Greg Lang
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Editor: Gardner Gould
Composer: Flying Lotus
Casting director: AZ Casting Partners
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)
Sales: CAA, XYZ

85 minutes