Things are not what they seem in Richard Shepard’s sharp and sinister thriller The Perfection. Get Out’s Allison Williams stars as Charlotte Willmore, who was a child prodigy on the cello until her path to greatness was thwarted by a family tragedy. Ten years later, Charlotte is finally free. And the first thing she does is reconnect with her former mentor Anton (Steven Weber), and Lizzie, the pretty protégé who took her place (Dear White People’s Logan Browning). Initially, it seems this might be a tale of ruthless rivalry between Lizzie and Charlotte. But that’s just the beginning of this masterful thriller that throbs with suspense and surprises.
Things begin with Charlotte looking over the corpse of her long-ill mother, whose mouth is frozen in an expression of agony. Nearby, well-meaning whisperers woefully recount how Charlotte had such promise as a young virtuoso, shame her mother’s stroke called her home from that esteemed music academy. But cry not for Charlotte, she has a plan. In the blink of an eye she’s in Shanghai, back in the midst of the classical music elite, sitting beside Lizzie and receiving hushed secrets of sex, scandals, and a rumored outbreak in the rural outskirts. You might think Charlotte would be jealous of Lizzie, whose face graces billboards and whose music is considered divine. But Charlotte seems genuinely adoring of this gorgeous and vibrant young woman, and soon the pair will tumble into bed before a fateful bus trip. From there, the script by Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo, and Nicole Snyder dares you to guess what kind of horror story this is. Will it be one of contagion? One of jealousy? One of revenge? The Perfection keeps you guessing.
As a long time fan of the horror genre, I tend to feel a smug safety as a film settles into its designated subgenre, because I know the rules of each and what to expect. There’s a creepy coziness there. But Shepard scoffs at such security. With each act break, a new reveal throws this story into spin, forcing the audience to reconsider everything we thought we knew about The Perfection. And while we’re still dizzy on plot twists, Shepard indulges in body horror and gore for a series of jaw-dropping jolts. Each time is absolutely exhilarating.
There’s a ghoulish and campy glee to the film’s violence. You might cackle as a cleaver is pulled out of nowhere. You may shriek as its put to use. You’re sure to squirm as Shepard plays audience expectation like a sadistic composer, conducting a symphony of horror and subversion. There’s a glorious showmanship here, where violence isn’t just gaudy spectacle. Instead, it’s used to dramatically shift the tone, subgenre, and expectations all in one bloody blow. And beneath all this, there’s a strikingly timely message, though to even hint at what it is would be a major spoiler. But, I will say that all this leads to a final scene that is bonkers, grotesque, and so strangely beautiful that it made me leap from admiring its risks to outright loving this deeply fucked up movie.
Credit where its due, The Perfection wouldn’t be the phenomenally mind-bending thrill ride it is without the intoxicating performances of its leading ladies. Horror fans know Williams as the milk-sipping psycho of Get Out, who was able to con a string of victims to their doom through her guileless smile and breezy warmth. So from moment one, we’re not certain we can trust Charlotte’s seeming sincerity. And Williams knows it. Her performance in act one is subtle and ambiguous, leaving us room to make assumptions about this bashful girl with the susceptive eyes that miss nothing. By contrast, Browning struts in with an enviable cool, a sultry smirk, and a conspiratorial tone that makes you want to sidle up to her whispering lips for all the hot gossip and breathy innuendos. Their sexual chemistry is explosive, but their chemistry when they are at odds is equally enthralling. As the film goes on, these two play together with raw emotion and savage wrath that scratches at the legacy of such camp horror divas as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Together, they claw their way through a climax that is deliciously vicious, sickeningly satisfying, and absolutely breathtaking.
The Perfection is now on Netflix.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com