You do not spend six seasons crafting a character like Girls‘ Marnie Michaels — ambitious, artistic, self-centered, self-defeating, romantically confused, musically inclined, very flawed, very human — without leaving a certain impression on viewers. And if you’re smart like Allison Williams, you then find a role that takes advantage of those preconceptions and proceeds to seriously screw with them. Any number of actresses could have played the progressive young woman with, shall we say, ulterior motives in Get Out, but once you’ve seen how she weaponizes her Marnie-isms in the name of what Jordan Peele is going for, it’s impossible to think of anyone else doing that part justice. (There’s a reason the “Give me the keys, Rose!” scene is practically iconic, and it’s because of her.)
Williams brings a bit of both of those roles to The Perfection, a Netflix thriller marinating in a potent blend of high art gloss and gloriously low grindhouse-lite sleaze. The Get Out girlfriend, however, is one that persistently bubbles to the front on your brain and keeps you on your toes. It’s impossible not to view her character Charlotte through Rose-colored glasses — you immediately find yourself wondering what, exactly, she’s up to and when the other shoe will hit the floor. There’s a certain quality of watchfulness and wiles-using Williams brings to this damaged, possibly deranged protagonist that suggests instability hiding behind her shiny hair and perfect teeth. She looks like the movie’s resident scream queen. She might also be its in-house serial killer.
We do know Charlotte was a cellist, and an extremely promising musician who studied at a prestigious academy in Boston. She had to quit to take care of her sick mom; quick-cut flashbacks suggest mental instability and some sort of institutionalization may factor in as well. When she suddenly shows up in Shanghai, with the hopes of reconnecting with her old mentor (Steven Weber) and his wife (Alaina Huffman), the question is not whether she’s playing a game but rather what game it is, why and with whom. And then we see the predatory look she gives the person who, once upon a time, took her place.
That would be Lizzie (Dear White People‘s Logan Browning), a fellow alumna who became the star cellist Charlotte was supposed to be. She’s judging a contest that will reward some young hopeful a full scholarship in the States. Lizzie also worshiped Charlotte from afar, perhaps in ways that went beyond just her skills with a bow; if you’re think that this means there’s going to be a montage of the two playing a frenzied duet intercut with a sex scene that walks the fine line between genre-appropriately salacious and downright gratuitous, you’d be 100-percent correct. The next day, the two board a bus that will take Lizzie to her next gig. Only, she’s not feeling so hot. Soon, she’s vomiting maggot-filled yellow goo and seeing bugs crawling underneath the skin of her arm. Freaking out on the side of a remote road in the mountains, Lizzie decides the only left to do is cut the offending body part off. Luckily, and somewhat suspiciously, Charlotte just happens to have a cleaver on-hand ….
What follows is not just a psychological thriller spiced with your run-of-the-mill sapphosploitation and the occasional slasher-horror tangent but a series of escalating set pieces, each pumped full of near-camp levels of delirium and set to a score that sounds like several alarms going off at once. Revenge is served cold, just not at the table you’d expect. There are reverses upon reverses, scenes that literally rewind to let you fill in some crucial blanks and the sense that you can’t trust anything you’re seeing. (It’s too bad that Netflix isn’t giving this a theatrical release; there are a handful of moments designed to make audiences scream out in tandem.) Director Richard Shepard has logged in a lot of TV hours (including a dozen Girls episodes) but his big-screen output tends to favor performers behaving extra-badly and over-the-top flourishes — see Pierce Brosnan’s louche hitman in The Matador (2005) or Jude Law’s thuggish monstrosity in Dom Hemingway (2013). You can feel him pushing Williams to go bigger and broader at times. He’s clearly relishing the more ridiculous aspects of the story here, especially when a big revelation drops and the third act goes from Black Swan to batshit crazy. This is his wheelhouse.
There is, it should be mentioned, another film going on underneath the pulpy, gory surface, one that speaks to why the movie is called The Perfection — it contains multitudes, this title — and almost feels like its slouching towards a sick strain of social satire. Shepard doesn’t have the deft touch to make the commentary inherent in the material slice as sharp as it needs to; he’s better with the blunt-force trauma aspects. The visual gag that concludes this specific symphony of think-piece horror, with a strong emphasis on that second word, is more effective as a shock treatment than a symbol of what’s really being taken to task. It’s up to Williams and Browning, both excellent at playing “distressed damsels” and vengeful score-settlers, to convey and focus the rage that’s fueling this Grand Guignol fuck-you. Which they do; Williams, especially, proves she’s got a knack for playing several things at once. You just wish the film around them rose to their level more in lieu of being enamored of its own cleverness.
But in an age of skeletons finally being excavated from closets and a righteous anger coalescing into a collective voice, there’s a sense of wish-fulfillment here that goes beyond the mechanisms of horror. Maybe you’ve noticed a tendency for lazy journalists and critics, always of the XY-chromosome persuasion, to simply slap a #MeToo label on anything involving more than one woman — as if the hashtag was merely a shorthand for “ladies doing lady things.” The Perfection, to its credit, earns the right to have that phrase associated with it. What it is tapping into, and what it wants to tear down, is significant. It is anything but a perfect movie. But in its own blood-splattered, limb-lopping way, it may be a particularly perfect thriller for this moment.