Like the classical music its subjects perform so elegantly, Richard Shepard’s “The Perfection,” now on Netflix, plays out as a series of movements, indulging in extreme shifts of key and tempo from one section to the next: For long stretches of time, it seems to be one kind of movie, and then, in a blink, it is something else entirely.
The film begins as something like a drama. Charlotte (Allison Williams) is a former cello prodigy who stepped away from her vaunted post at “the premier private music facility for young cellists,” which is run with an iron fist by Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), in order to care for her sick mother. In the ensuing decade, Lizzie (Logan Browning) has become the school’s star pupil.
Charlotte and Lizzie meet in Shanghai, where they’ve been invited to serve as judges in selecting Anton’s next live-in student. A “Black Swan” dynamic quickly begins to develop between them, in which Charlotte seems threatened but aroused by this younger prodigy. Their chemistry is electric, dramatized by a cello duet sequence that is shot and edited like a sex scene before slowly becoming one. (The editor, David Dean, does some of the best intercutting this side of “Out of Sight.”)
Then comes the second movement, and with it, an unexpected, hard-left turn into straight-up body horror. The two young women, still abuzz from their night together, decide to take a day trip on a rickety bus through the Chinese countryside, even though Lizzie is starting to feel a little sick. Just a hangover, right? Yet her illness escalates as they get farther from civilization, and Shepard builds a thick haze of dread around them, waiting out this uncomfortable, escalating situation and the build of her horrifying sickness.
If they can’t escape that bus, the logic seems to go, then neither can we. And then … well, that’s when things start to get really interesting.
More than that is best left unsaid, as “The Perfection” pulls a daring second-act reframing that amounts to a full-siren announcement that all bets are off. What’s striking is how fluidly Shepard moves from one perspective to the next, swapping heroes and villains, upending assumptions. And the meticulousness of the taut and airtight screenplay, written by Shepard with Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, means that what first appear to be loose ends are never left dangling long.
Williams is an ideal lead for such narrative sleights of hand. As in “Get Out,” the picture benefits from her particular skill at hiding her secrets, of putting on a brave face or a sincere voice without giving away her real game. Browning (known for taking over the Tessa Thompson role in the Netflix adaptation of “Dear White People”) is a revelation as Lizzie, bringing a scary vulnerability to the role and deftly transforming it into strength. And Weber is a standout in support, his scarf arranged over his tweed jacket just so, a character whose theatricality can clearly swing, on a dime, into madness.
Some of the effects are not for wobbly stomachs, including one moment of gore that rivals Netflix’s gold standard, “Gerald’s Game,” and later sections skate into territory that may prove too dark (or perhaps too exploitative) for some audiences. A few moments are rather on the nose (one scene has Weber unnerved when his stereo switches from classical to hip-hop, so uncivilized), and some of the early exposition leans on the kind of clumsy, conveniently overheard conversations that should have been jettisoned in the second draft.
The tone also proves difficult to sustain: Material like this walks a tightrope over silliness, and Shepard occasionally loses his balance.
But he recovers. Shepard is a peculiar filmmaker, whose jazzy 2005 feature “The Matador” might have been a breakthrough had it found the audience it deserved, and who has mostly floundered in subsequent film efforts. His execution here is often giddily trashy — wild strings and creaky doors on the soundtrack, lingering knife close-ups filling the frame — but it doesn’t feel like slumming. This is a filmmaker aware of the conventions, who wields them with wit and precision and knows his audience is on the gag as well. In many ways, “The Perfection” amounts to little more than a bag of tricks. But no one is pretending otherwise. And they’re good tricks.
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Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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