I got introduced to Richard Shepard’s work one afternoon in college when HBO decided to run Oxygen, a thriller he made back in 1999 about a kidnapper (Adrien Brody) who emotionally browbeats a cop (Maura Tierney) into confronting the darkest corners of her nature. I only saw the film the one time, and there’s a lot of little details that have escaped me in the 15-ish years since I randomly turned it on. I couldn’t even reliably tell you whether or not it’s a good movie. But something about watching the mom from Liar Liar being forced to haltingly confess and explore her love of sadomasochism kind of forces you to put the remote down and forget about that class you have in an hour. At the very least, it left a mark, and I’ll always respect that.
Not long after, Shepard’s follow-up, the fantastic Pierce Brosnan hitman comedy The Matador, hit the screens and hit hard, establishing him as a darkly comic wit and setting the tone for the rest of his feature output (The Hunting Party, Dom Hemingway). On the whole, he tends to fly under the radar; he’s probably best known for his work on Lena Dunham’s Girls, as well as directing the pilots for Ugly Betty and Criminal Minds. Still, whatever work he does usually manages to stay with me in some small way.
20 years after the release of Oxygen, his new film, The Perfection, is a return to the sort of twisted psychodrama that got my attention in the first place. And where Oxygen left a mere mark, The Perfection leaves a crater.
We start with Charlotte (Allison Williams), fresh from the death of her mother after a decade-long illness. Charlotte is a classically-trained cellist, once the pride of the prestigious Bachoff Music School in Boston. She also, going off the telltale marks on her wrists and the brief glimpses we get of her electroshock therapy, seems to have some mental health issues. With nowhere else to go, she calls her old teacher Anton (Steven Weber), hoping to get back into his good graces. Anton’s happy to have her back, but he’s got a new star pupil (Logan Browning, Dear White People) that Charlotte is very, very worried about.
And beyond the trailer up above, which I embedded early in case you decide to stop reading, that’s all I’m allowing myself to say about the plot. That’s right, it’s a twist-heavy narrative, and now that you know that, a certain number of you are going to be watching this movie at DEFCON 2, second-guessing every choice the film makes in an effort to figure out where it’s going long before it gets there. If that sounds like you, you’re free to bail out right here to give yourself the best possible chance at a blind first run; while I refuse to go into plot specifics, I’m going to be talking about things that’ll make it a lot easier to put the pieces together as you go along.
I don’t judge—I’m one of those people. Tell me a movie’s unpredictable, and it’s not so much a compliment as it is a dare; it’s less about trying to prove anything about myself or the film and more of an anxious compulsion. So even as I was enjoying the film, I was still watching it on my toes, picking up little details that allowed me to stay a step or two ahead of what was going on. That doesn’t matter as much as you might think; it’s a rare pleasure to find a movie that takes you by complete surprise, but I’ll take a predictable twist over a nonsensical one any day of the week. Any narrative that depends on withholding information from its audience should be able to survive its eventual disclosure. By that rubric, The Perfection passes with flying colors; I loved watching its reversals upon reversals play out, even as I called them, and they’re entirely consistent with the film’s established internal logic.
But if that internal logic got any more batshit insane, we’d be entering Salò territory.
Let me be clear: very little about this film’s ambitions are prestigious. It may not appear that way at first; something about setting the film in the world of classical music gives the work an air of sophistication, buttressed by Shepard’s too-formal-on-purpose style (in this case, complete with chapter cards that recall films like The Favourite). At its core, however, The Perfection is a dark, twisted little movie that has a full understanding of itself. It delights in the ways it gradually reveals its lurid nature, even going so far as to use those reveals to comment on the subject matter itself. It doesn’t feel like an accident that Allison Williams’ performance has more than a few echoes of her iconic role in Get Out; combined with Vanja Cernjul’s immersive photography and the steady pace set by editor David Dean, certain expectations are established that the film does an excellent job of unraveling as it goes along. There’s a needledrop late in the film’s third act that all but confirms Shepard’s taking the piss, and at that point, you might be ready to cheer him on out loud. Artful as it may be, The Perfection is not above exploitation, and its meta-textual awareness might be the best thing about it.
Now, smart exploitation is still exploitation, and I have concerns that there’s going to be a not-insignificant portion of the audience that will be deeply uncomfortable with how the film handles its delicate subject matter. Doubly so since the film is completely anchored to feminine experiences, and too few women are getting chances to bring their own perspectives into cinema. (Note: The film’s script is co-credited to Nicole Snyder.) I can only speak personally, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered. But I’m looking forward to discovering more feminist perspectives on the film, whatever side they may come down on, and possibly learning a little more from them.
Having said that, I remain bowled over by The Perfection. Looking over his filmography, Oxygen seems like such a strange blip in Shepard’s body of darkly comic work. But it’s thrilling to see him revisit that nasty little impulse he once had, now armed with a whole lot of confidence and no small amount of humor. If he ever wants to try it again, I’ll be first in line.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Richard Shepard
Written by Richard Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo, Nicole Snyder
Produced by Richard Shepard, Bill Block, Stacey Reiss
Starring Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Running Time: 90 minutes