The Perfection swings for the fences. The gonzo horror movie-cum-erotic thriller, directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador, Dom Hemingway) and starring Allison Williams and Logan Browning as cellists trained at the same conservatory, is one of the crazier features to hit Netflix as the streaming giant expands its original content wheelhouse.
Charlotte (Williams) was poised for stardom until her mother took ill, forcing her to vacate a spot at the prestigious Bachoff Academy of Music. When her mother passes away, Charlotte reaches out to her former mentors at the Academy, Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma Bachoff (Alaina Huffman), to get back into their good graces. While attending the selection ceremony for a new pupil for the school, she meets Lizzie (Browning), the Bachoffs’ new star student, and the two immediately hit it off.
You’re right to sense a Single White Female angle: Lizzie has taken Charlotte’s place, and Charlotte wants it back, or at least to sabotage Lizzie badly enough that neither of them can possess the spotlight. As the two bond — they go clubbing and sleep together, and Lizzie invites Charlotte on her trip through rural China — the sense that something is off is pervasive. Charlotte looks at Lizzie the way a tiger looks at its prey, and though there’s more to Lizzie than meets the eye (her first real conversation with Charlotte covers infidelity and kinks), there’s only so much she can really predict.
So it goes, too, for the audience. The Perfection starts as an erotic thriller before morphing into something else, and to give away anything that follows would be to rob from the movie’s sole pleasure. Though Williams is superb, taking full advantage of the preconceptions anyone who watched Girls or Get Out will have about her character, it’s not enough to mask the fact that The Perfection is lean on substance.
[Ed. note: Light spoilers for The Perfection follow.]
The themes that the film deals with — the pressure put on young women to achieve, yes, perfection, and the way societal structures can aid and abet their abuse — are topical. However, The Perfection is a little too thin for them to feel earned, particularly when the specter of sexual abuse goes from implicit to explicit and hangs over the film like Damocles’ sword. The Perfection stumbles in its attempts at becoming an “issues movie” (for lack of a better term) because it doesn’t have the time to properly explore that territory; the film seems more interesting in being a horror thriller, which, unsurprisingly, is when it excels.
Shepard is excellent at ramping up tension, and Browning acquits herself marvelously as this film’s scream queen. The film’s grosser moments — insects are involved, as are a cleaver and more stitches than you’ve ever seen outside of a medical drama — are horrific, and Shepard doesn’t shy away from gore. Anyone looking for a shock need look no further; The Perfection is loaded with the kinds of set pieces that should satisfy any horror enthusiast.
The problem is that, perhaps dissatisfied with just splatter, Shepard tries to mine every other possible avenue for shock, too. It leads to an unevenness in tone, and a slightly sour taste in the mouth once the movie is over. The film’s treatment of sexual abuse and rape borders on exploitative, and The Perfection never recovers from the reveal.
The film’s B-movie horror spirit contradicts the larger issues that the story tries to tackle. Grindhouse isn’t mutually exclusive with grace, but they don’t often easily mesh. Shepard’s stylistic flourishes, while fun, don’t help the case, as his penchant for literally rewinding events feels perhaps too flip when it comes to the story ultimately being told.
The good thing is that The Perfection is just gonzo enough to render its audience blind to some of its bigger flaws. It’s fun (if also a little anxiety-inducing) all the way through, relentless in keeping the audience on its feet and trying to defy and subvert expectations and genre tropes. And it still feels good when, in the end, the villain receives their comeuppance.