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When one becomes a frequent moviegoer, it becomes rarer and rarer to become totally bowled over by a massive surprise. It’s simple math: the more films you see, the more you adjust to certain storytelling devices; and the more you adjust and recognize those devices, the more often you can see certain plot developments coming. This kind of predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the reason why we see repetitive narrative constructions is often because they’ve proven to be effective in the past. That said, it does have the tendency to somewhat break the cinematic spell because you can see what’s coming beat for beat.
There is a special silver lining here, however, and it’s the fact that the rare exceptions become that much more exciting. Just when you think you have a movie’s number and know exactly where it’s going, watching it zag when you predicted it was going to zig becomes that much more thrilling. You begin to think, “If this story was able to pull that off, I have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go next,” and that mystery is intoxicating.
In that respect, Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is a most excellent dab of black tar heroin. It’s a movie that operates to first generate a certain level of expectation and perceptions about certain characters and events, and then in a heartbeat, it demolishes those notions and becomes something completely different than what had been established. Mix in multiple sequences that make you want to crawl under your chair, and particular images that will stay glued behind your eyelids for days, and what culminates is a tremendous piece of modern horror filmmaking and an epically satisfying experience.
Obviously revealing too much here would do an extreme disservice to the film, but it is safe to reveal the initial setup. Written by Richard Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, The Perfection begins with former cello prodigy Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) experiencing the death of her mother. It’s emotional, but also been a long time coming, as many years ago Charlotte dropped out of a hyper-elite music program to care for her when she first became sick. With her time as caretaker over, she decides to rejoin the world she was once prepared to dominate by attending a special event in Shanghai, China organized by her former instructor, Anton (Steven Weber), and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman).
Charlotte is asked to participate as a judge in a contest that will determine the next student to be accepted to Bachoff Academy, and this leads her to meet Elizabeth Wells (Logan Browning) – the prodigy that succeeded her when she was forced to drop out of the school. Wells has achieved international acclaim for her music, playing in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe, but she is also a lifelong admirer of her Bachoff predecessor. The two women immediately hit it off, their relationship rapidly going from friendship to something more, and Lizzie decides to invite Charlotte to go with her on a two week “rough and tumble” vacation through Western China.
As fun and exciting as things start out, though, their situation quickly devolves into nightmare. Some hard partying leaves Lizzie waking up one morning feeling less than great, and her symptoms progressively get worse as she and Charlotte travel on a bus to their next destination. The full gravity of their situation hits them hard… and where the story goes from there needs to be personally witnessed rather than detailed in a review.
Right now you may think that you have the whole thing figured out, but I promise you that you don’t. The narrative as it unfolds is as surprising as it is deliciously fucked up – boosted by an approach to tone that feels like the film is perpetually shooting the audience a wink and a wry smile. The Perfection revels in knowing exactly what it is, unafraid to hit the audience with the occasional bit of comedy that perfectly pairs with its outrageousness, and it even manages to uncover unexpected layers that also reveal it to be genuinely in tune with the zeitgeist.
In a similar way that it plays with tonal juxtapositions, Richard Shepard also develops a wonderful aesthetic that fully engages both the beauty and the horror within the story. There are moments that will turn stomachs and prove to be far too much for more squeamish members of the audience (seriously, consider this a warning), but The Perfection also perfectly exploits the immense elegance that comes hand in hand with the world of classical music. The title references the value placed on every single solitary note played in the genre, and the film further reflects this by also being wonderfully and intensely detailed in both its production design and edit.
Ornate as it can be, the movie also never gets too lost in its details, particularly because of the maintained emphasis on its characters – which is something enforced by the fantastic lead performances. Between this film and Get Out, Allison Williams is developing into a special kind of scream queen, and delivers a turn here that is perfectly nuanced and subtly emotional. Logan Browning, meanwhile, has the opportunity to play a contrasting energy that is aggressive, seductive, and captivating throughout her complicated arc. Between this and her phenomenal work on the series Dear White People, she is emerging as a true talent who demands attention.
Being released on Netflix, The Perfection is going to be immediately accessible to millions of subscribers – and it’s partially with that in mind that audiences should seek it out and watch it as quickly as possible. This is a film that is best experienced knowing nothing beyond what has been mentioned here, and the longer you wait means the higher potential of being exposed to spoilers. Turn off every light in your home, sit comfortably close to the screen and thank me later.