Netflix's Gory 'The Perfection' Puts a Twist on the Revenge Thriller
"Play through pain" is an often-quoted mantra for athletes and musicians, invoked to encourage discipline and focus in the face of physical discomfort, but it can also be a useful approach to watching a movie like The Perfection, Netflix's self-consciously sleazy genre provocation starring Allison Williams as a former child cello prodigy out for revenge. Bothered by the belabored exposition and stilted dialogue? Power ahead. Grossed out by the creepy bug effects and horrifying depictions of self-mutilation? Keep streaming. Annoyed by the story's occasionally glib treatment of sexual assault and childhood trauma? Don't tab away. For some viewers, the act of surviving each grisly twist and body horror scare will be its own reward.
As a cinematic endurance test for people looking for something to watch while they fold their laundry, The Perfection dutifully provides plenty of shocking moments. Director and co-writer Richard Shepard, who previously worked with Williams on some of the best episodes of HBO's comedy Girls and directed the Jude Law crime comedy Dom Hemingway, has constructed a plot that switches up the time signature every few measures, bouncing from Black Swan-esque erotic thriller to Contagion-like medical nightmare. Headlines have already started to claim that the movie "is making people sick." One imagines the algorithmically-inclined executives at Netflix hope it will inspire a B-movie variation on last year's viral Bird Box challenge: Try to get through it without reaching for a blindfold or a barf bucket.
The Perfection, set in the glossy and moneyed world of classical music, begins with a quiet death in the gray, drab interiors of suburban Minneapolis. After taking care of her beloved mother for years, Charlotte (Williams) emerges from a cocoon of grief to speculation about whether she's lost her incomparable musical genius. "Can she ever really perform again?" whispers a faceless individual at her house, quickly establishing that Charlotte was at one point a brilliant, peerless cellist. With her determined honor roll student intensity, deployed so perfectly in Get Out, Williams has no trouble selling the idea of Charlotte as a virtuoso whose wings were clipped right when she was about to fulfill her potential. She radiates a mix of ambition and entitlement.
Unburdened by familial obligations, Charlotte travels to Shanghai to reunite with her old teacher, Anton, a round-glasses-wearing instructor played by Steven Weber. Years ago, Charlotte was the star pupil of his highly respected, slightly mysterious academy for gifted musicians, which he runs with his watchful spouse Paloma (Supernatural's Alaina Huffman). In Charlotte's time away, she was essentially replaced by the younger and equally accomplished Lizzie (Dear White People's Logan Browning), who grew up admiring Charlotte as a child. When Charlotte attempts to flatter her, Lizzie responds with her own glowing compliments. "You were 14 and everything I wanted to be," she says. "I'm just so happy to finally meet you."
After playing a duet together, the two go out for a night of dancing and tumble into bed. At this point, Shepard and the co-writers have done the rote, efficient work of setting up a vaguely De Palma-ey backstage psychological thriller with some mildly amusing visual flourishes. (As Netflix's over-eager Twitter account wants you to know, there are plenty of split diopter shots to enjoy.) When the two lovers decide to travel on an ill-advised tour of China together, Lizzie falls ill and the movie makes a scatological detour that might make the Farrelly brothers blush. The shift from flirtatious cocktail party chatter to Browning groaning lines like, "If I move, I'll shit," and Williams screaming at a bus driver is the script's best, most gleefully tasteless gamble. It's like the movie briefly ditches the glass of champagne for a can of Red Bull.
I won't reveal the exact plot mechanics and revelations that follow, but the movie's attempts to top itself gradually become exhausting. While Williams and Browning are fully committed to the psychological gymnastics and physical challenges the story demands, selling each absurd contrivance with a dollop of realism, the filmmaking often lets them down. Certain devices, like a cheesy but fun rewinding effect, get reused and stripped of their initial corny potency. At a lean 90 minutes, The Perfection has the decency to be short and the tenacity to attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience multiple times, but the abundance of nerve can't compensate for a lack of wit. By the end, the composition loses its rhythm, devolving into violent mayhem and standard revenge beats. Merely playing through the pain becomes an exercise in futility.
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