There are more promising — if conventional — directions to take “The Perfection,” a horror tale that twists back on itself so often that the gimmick gives away the game and spoils the fun.
Director and co-writer Richard Shepard did “The Matador” and “Dom Hemingway,” bloody-minded dark comedies that were fine vehicles for Pierce Brosnan and Jude Law. Here, he pairs up Logan Browning (TV’s “Dear White People”) and Allison Williams of “Get Out” and TV’s “Girls” as cellists who find they have a lot more in common than their love of the instrument.
Like say, a lust for each other, a competitive fire and ambition to burn. As good as both are in some moments of “The Perfection,” I found myself longing for a story less self-consciously tricky. They’re both a tad scary, and the picture — at times — is erotic as all get out.
We meet Charlotte (Williams, daughter of NBC anchor Brian, remember) as she is whispered about, “such a good daughter” caring for her dying mother. Once, she was a star cellist at the exclusive Backham Academy.
Does she have designs on getting that back? Her callous “My mother finally died” to Anton (Steven Weber), who runs the place, answers that.
She and we can see the billboards touting Anton’s latest protege, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wells.
Pairing them up to judge the next generation of recruits — Chinese — in Shanghai throws them together, with much eye contact (closeups) and gushing of compliments.
Nose-ringed Lizzie, “my most prized protege,” and Charlotte, when together, comprise Anton’s “two most perfect students.” They barely hear him. The ladies are busy sizing each other up.
“I downloaded every video of you…”
“You were 14, and everything I wanted to be.”
Lizzie is five years Charlotte’s junior, and she puts a stop to all this one-upmanship complimenting.
“You have been, and always will be, the person who makes my heart skip a beat when you play.”
That takes Charlotte’s breath away, so as they bond while judging, swap snark about the players and their parents, the attraction is overwhelming. They act on it.
Lizzie wants a break from “”this special work…It’s what’s expected of us.” A “rough and tumble” Chinese vacation is in order.
“You should come!”
That “hemorrhagic fever” that they’ve seen people succumbing to? It’s “happening down south.” Not to worry. But of course, they and we should.
The best scenes in “The Perfection” are of that flirtation — Williams’ eyes absolutely devour Browning — and of the illness that almost instantly overtakes one cellist and her absolute freak-out — on a bus in the middle of nowhere.
Lizzie — “I’m dying...I’m scared! What is happening, what is HAPPENING to me?”
Charlotte — “I took care of my mom…for years. I can handle this.”
What happens next we see coming, because we’ve seen versions of this sort of story before. Hallucinations, horrific violence. It feels, for all the world, like the climax to the tale. But we’re not even halfway done.
Shepard’s film has inter-titled chapters — “1. Mission,” “2. Detour” — delineating the direction things are headed in, if not the final destination.
We’re treated to both the climactic moments, and then “rewind” flashbacks explaining how such moments play out, the way came to pass.
That is gimmicky and stops the movie cold, and Shepard repeats it a couple of times in a cheesy “Oh, THAT’S what she was plotting/that’s how THIS was carried out” fashion.
The performances and close-ups have an element of poker game “tells” to them. Williams makes us remember her ulterior motives in “Get Out,” while Browning is more poker-faced about what is happening and what is coming.
Weber delightfully channels Stanley Tucci, his airs and aloof accent. Nobody plays a snob like Tucci, except for — now — Steven Weber.
The story turns into a veritable soap opera of cliffhangers, surprise motives, revenge and revenge on the avenger, some of which the players foreshadow rather obviously.
And for every major surprise, Shepard helpfully rewinds (literally) the cast and the scene, taking us back to the beginning of a sequence and spoon-feeding what is REALLY going on and why we shouldn’t be that surprised at what went down.
With each rewind, the picture locks-up and we disconnect with what’s going on, and more importantly, with the characters.
Which renders the minimalist promise of “The Perfection” a promise largely unfulfilled.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity
Cast: Logan Browning, Allison Williams, Steven Weber
Credits: Directed by Richard Shepard, script by Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder. A Miramax/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30