In The Perfection, a harsh taskmaster subjects students to unbelievable punishment for making even the tiniest mistake. That crafts a bleak reality in which this film gleefully bends, twists and breaks its characters. It also suggests an unfortunate metaphor, as this movie from director Richard Shepard makes mistakes that undermine its gnarly excess and the slightly maniacal performances from Allison Williams and Logan Browning.
Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a cello prodigy who stepped away from public life to care for her terminally ill mother. Years later, she resurfaces at an event in China, where her teachers Anton and Paloma (Steven Weber and Alaina Huffman) shine a spotlight on their current superstar, Lizzie (Logan Browning).
Lizzie and Charlotte are initially wary of one another, but soon throw caution to the wind and embrace their similarities. Their quick bond is refreshing; what initially looks set to develop as a boilerplate “mean girls” setup becomes something else. Their exchanges are flirtatious, sensual, sometimes strange — all of which defines how the film engages the audience, up to a point.
The Perfection is an escalating set of playful fakeouts and reveals. Several are genuinely good. A couple are managed better than others. Shepard leans on a time-rewind device more than once, in which we literally watch scenes running quickly backward to establish a new perspective. It’s a fairly goofy way to establish a very heightened “movie” atmosphere in which the film can get away with anything.
Problem is, it can’t. From moment one, Williams and Browning wholly give themselves over to the film, and they save more than a few leaden scenes. Yet they can’t fight lines that repeatedly emphasizes what we can already see on their faces. Any “less is more” guidelines go out the window early; The Perfection embraces excess, for good and ill.
This next bit is a light spoiler for anyone who wants to go in cold, but there’s no way to talk about why The Perfection totally breaks down without mentioning one detail. Rape is a big motivator in this movie, as both an experience and a threat. Shepard and his actors create such a far-out atmosphere, which exists in a grey area between early Eli Roth films and David Cronenberg’s body horror, that perhaps the thinking was that rape would nestle in fine. It doesn’t.
The Perfection is humming along, if not smoothly, then at least viciously, and then it spins out in the same way Don’t Breathe did during the turkey baster reveal. Rape as a motivator is so dreadfully lazy that not even The Perfection’s gleefully bizarre ending could help it recover. I’m not here to write about the version of this movie that doesn’t exist, but the one that does is cheapened by this plotting. So many other threatening actions would have elevated the movie’s creepy and tense reality.
There's even a point at which one character is mocked for being afraid of the specter of rape, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated to be a thing they should absolutely fear. That mocking ultimately seems aimed at the audience. “You didn't really think we were going to do this, did you?” It's infuriating.
All of which grates against the immersive instability Shepard is otherwise pretty good at maintaining. Multiple perspective shifts suggest we shouldn’t trust the movie, but there’s a big difference between a film being unreliable and losing the plot altogether. The Perfection wants to be an indulgent, overripe revenge fantasy, but a rotten core makes it impossible to enjoy.