When I was a kid, I went to an exhibit at an art museum that celebrated Rube Goldberg machines. While my family wandered the museum and looked at everything else, I stayed in the basement to watch marbles knock over dominoes, light candles, and pour water for what felt like hours. The machines never accomplished anything beyond celebrating the wonder of complexity.
Netflix’s new psychological horror film, The Perfection (2019), brought me back to that art museum basement. Directed by Emmy Award winner Richard Shepard (Ugly Betty TV series, The Hunting Party 2007) and co-written by Shepard and Supernatural’s Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, the film plays with narrative, empathy, color, and the audience’s assumptions to create a constantly churning, ticking, and whirring Rube Goldberg machine of a movie.
One cog in that machine belongs in the impossibly long tradition in horror cinema of using talking points from the applied zeitgeist and using them as a canvas for their art, such as it is. Some movies are expertly crafted to tell these culturally inspired stories. Others are cheap cash grabs that have all the nuance of a Law & Order: SVU episode. Lastly, there’s a third category of movie, where the canon is Cape Canaveral to the movie’s ascending rocket, a distant launchpad to something headed quickly in a different direction.
That rarified third category is where you’ll find The Perfection. Although seemingly inspired by the rhetoric and overtones of the #MeToo movement, it quickly tangents into a sensory, narrative funhouse of sound, color, and storytelling.
The story follows a cello prodigy, Charlotte (Get Out’s Allison Williams), as she returns to the high stakes world of musical performance with all its rivalries and uncompromising mentors. She encounters her former teacher, erudite Anton (Steven Weber: iZombie TV series, The Shining TV series) and his new star pupil, Lizzie (Logan Browning: Dear White People TV series). When they meet, the intricate and dangerous clockwork of The Perfection begins.
The performances in The Perfection are, if you’ll forgive me, perfection themselves. Allison Williams balances the likability and menace that she wielded in Get Out again here, forcing the audience to wonder who our heroine is. Logan Browning crackles and smolders like an elemental force, announcing in no uncertain terms that there’s a talent worth watching with every scene. Steven Weber brings an effete quality to the film reminiscent of a Vincent Price character.
That clockwork grinds and clicks into countless possible plots from foreign contagion to body horror to eroticism to jealousy, and as hinted at in the trailer, mutilation. It’s impossible to stay completely with The Perfection in its hurry to rush us through its various twists and turns. Eventually, I decided to treat the film as an Italian Giallo, dropping out from the plot and experiencing the aesthetic wash of the film with full force.
This was, without a doubt, the best way forward. Color is alive and swirling in Shepard’s world, where vomit is highlighter yellow, the walls are lipstick red, and the music is the frantic scratching of classical instruments afraid of their crescendo.
Which brings us to the music. There’s a great deal of cello playing in The Perfection, which not only grounds us in the world of these cello prodigies and their mentors, but also reinforces the films strange sexuality.
The cello curves like a human body being played between the legs of the musician, skillful fingers licking and plucking and stroking the low animal groans of bow on string. When Charlotte and Emily take each other to bed in a series of deeply evocative flashes, their cello duet intermingles in both sight and sound. By the laws of the film, command of the cello is command of the body.
When the film reaches its climax, this command is brought to the forefront, and the question of what control truly means is answered in bright, red letters.
While not always clear in its intent, The Perfection shines in its execution with a compellingly twisty plot, stellar genre performances, and a rich sensuality that will burn its afterimages into your mind like a broken projector. Once it begins and all its parts are moving, the purpose of this dark machine doesn’t matter nearly as much as how beautifully all its dripping, glittering parts move together. It traps you in its enchanting, dimly lit basement until the machine is all you care about.
Then you’re left with an ending image that stands in the pantheon next to the likes of The VVitch (2015 – read our review here), Sleepaway Camp (1983 – read our retro review here), and Takashi Miike’s Box (2004).