The Perfection — an efficient, effective nugget of nastiness now streaming on Netflix, for which the curious should avoid autoplay trailers — mostly amounts to director Richard Shepard (The Matador, HBO’s Girls) yanking one hairpin hard-left after another into several lanes of horror. Shepard seems to understand Girls was often a half-step from the genre anyway, for reasons that manifest themselves here beyond re-teaming with that series’ co-star Allison Williams.
She plays one-time cello prodigy Charlotte Willmore, who abandoned her burgeoning career to care for an ailing mother who has finally died after a decade of illness. After reconnecting with former teacher Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte is invited to judge a young cellists’ competition in Shanghai alongside Anton’s latest protégé and poster child, Lizzie Wells (Logan Browning).
Shepard’s TV experience serves The Perfection well, conveying multitudes about Charlotte and Lizzie’s schisms by alternating lingered-on details and lightning-quick cuts. Although you sense each woman is secretly and mercilessly plucking the other’s strings with sharp pizzicato, Charlotte and Lizzie become friends, and embark on a vacation together through China.
From there, The Perfection spins up cheerily caustic raw-wound rubbernecking and several surprises — sometimes lurid and lascivious, often playfully portentous. Despite a four-chapter split, the script (co-written by Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) is clearly, if not neatly, cleaved in half. While the first strike isn’t clean, The Perfection eventually severs from the connective tissue you expect.
In her second feature role and first lead, Williams puts holistic spin on her suspicious-disingenuous shtick honed on Girls. Browning matches her most of the way as Charlotte’s simultaneous object of desire and disgust. Together, they evoke the suffocating existence of high-society objets d’art that have lost their tarnish, the present fear of their talent being spoken of in the past tense, and the assumption that they’ll remain mum while managing bad situations “because it’s what’s expected of us.”
It’s along those lines that The Perfection attempts to infuse its final act with topicality. Shepard and company mirror a recent horror hit’s secluded, fire-lit imagery just fine but offer little of its authoritative inquiry or investigation. You’ll definitely remember what goes down here, but merely as another decent twist of the knife and an addendum to the lengthy list of films and filmmakers (foreign and domestic) of which The Perfection reminds you.
Amid all of this, The Perfection illustrates healthy respect for convincing mimicry of cello performance and for the cello itself. In one particular shot, Shepard draws focus to the instrument’s scroll — a decorative, distinctive carving at the top of the spine. You’ll definitely notice the bold flourishes and tight spiral in Shepard’s cinematic concerto of coiled tension.