by Kayla McCulloch on Jun 10, 2019

In April, Twitter account @NetflixFilm — one of the streaming giant’s many attempts to appeal to hip cinephiles via this newfangled social-media thing — garnered some unwanted attention by praising a standout shot from a recent horror addition to their film library: “I just want to shout out this split diopter shot from Final Destination 3 because it looks like it came right out of a Hitchcock/De Palma film.” Users were quick to criticize both the tweet’s inaccuracy — Hitchcock rarely used split diopters (though De Palma’s films do employ the technique frequently) — the account’s flop-sweaty attempt at Film Twitter pandering. Luckily for Netflix, the embarrassing tweet was all but forgotten by the next day.

Then, almost exactly a month later, the streaming service released Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, a campy thriller that the company snapped up at Fantastic Fest in Austin back in 2018. As it turns out, Shepard’s film is filled with split-diopter shots, as though Netflix had been hinting at what was to come. The account was quick to point this out in a pedantic, multi-tweet rant on The Perfection’s release date, going on at length about the intended effect that split diopters have on the viewer, citing multiple examples of them from film history and explaining the difference between the technique and deep focus. (“The unnaturalness of the shots [creates] a disorienting effect & helps enhance the film’s constant sense of trepidation,” the account’s author writes, practically instructing the viewer on how to feel.)

In truth, no amount of Film School 101 bloviating is preferable to actually experiencing the abstract shots and jarring cuts contained in the first few minutes of The Perfection. Seconds in, a split diopter is used to show Charlotte Willmore — played by Allison Williams in full Get Out (2017) mode, straddling the line between serious and this-can’t-be-serious — staring at her dead mother’s body. This is followed by some spliced-together footage of a young Charlotte and a slowly spinning shot of present-day Charlotte at her mother’s bedside. Some overtly expository dialogue from a pair of aunts just outside the room establishes the backstory. Ten year ago, Charlotte gave up her life as cello prodigy, but — as she says in a phone call to Anton (Steven Weber), her former teacher and owner of the prestigious music school she used to attend — she is now free to return to the world of classical music, given that her mother has “finally passed away.” 

This phone call takes Charlotte to Shanghai, where Anton and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), are in the process of narrowing three potential cello students down to one. Assisting Anton and Paloma with their selection is Elizabeth Wells (Dear White People’s Logan Browning), a fellow cellist who ascended to success when Charlotte left the school. After an awkward, mutually fangirlish conversation and an impromptu cello duet, Lizzy and Charlotte’s artistic camaraderie quickly turns physical. The two decide to go backpacking through rural China to get away for a few days, but not before celebrating their newfound relationship with a night out.

Unfortunately, Lizzy wakes up feeling awful after their evening of excess. Dismissing it as hangover symptoms at first, the two quickly begin to sense that something isn’t quite right, especially when they realize that Lizzy’s symptoms match those of a mysterious epidemic sweeping through southern China. The two grow more hysterical as Lizzy gets sicker, eventually resulting in their ejection from a bus and their stranding in the middle of nowhere. From here, a genuinely surprising twist serves as a D.C. al Coda of sorts, as the film hurls the viewer back to the moment the couple awakens following their night of partying. The feature then provides an alternate perspective on the events thus far before jumping into the next act. 

This twist is shocking and effective enough to excuse much of peculiar dialogue and hokey performances that characterize the film’s first act. With an hour left and the rug pulled out from under the viewer, The Perfection could honestly go in any direction. Unfortunately, the direction Shepard’s film chooses for its second half pales in comparison to the wild ride of the first. What initially presents itself as a jealousy-fueled thriller quickly devolves into a three-way quest for vengeance between the film’s leads. The film returns to same rewind-time device that worked so well in the first instance, but it fails to garner the same jaw-dropping impact on the second go-round.

Regardless of how effective these plot devices are, The Perfection clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, the most obvious being De Palma’s plethora of psychological thrillers. The film also has plenty in common with Whiplash (2014) – another entry in the musical-prodigy-psychodrama subgenre – and with the South Korean revenge films of Park Chan-wook. However, despite these cinematic touchstones, something feels a little off about Shepard’s final product, which never truly manages to feel cinematic itself. 

Some of this may be attributable to the creative team’s television-heavy background. Shepard and Williams are both veterans of HBO’s Girls (2012-17), the latter as a one of the ensemble dramedy’s stars and the former as a director. Co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, meanwhile, are best known as producers and writers on the never-ending cult phenomenon Supernatural (2005-19). Intertitles suggest that The Perfection’s four chapters are intended to mirror the movements of a musical composition, but this structure also conveniently allows Shepard, Charmelo, and Snyder to approach the story episodically. Director of photography Vanja Cernjul is likewise a prestige-television stalwart, which might explain why the lighting in The Perfection is so luminously harsh, as if everything is glowing, soap opera-style. In a time when television is constantly being referred to as “cinematic,” The Perfection illustrates that episodic TV and feature films require completely different creative approaches to function most effectively.

Ultimately, after a quick, bloody climax and a startling final shot, Shepard’s feature leaves the viewer stupefied. The film feels like seedy, campy perfection when the first big twist reveals itself around the halfway point, but ventures into dangerous and reductive territory when it employs the outdated abuse-equals-empowerment narrative that has been a staple of countless revenge thrillers. At first, all those split-diopter shots feel startling and novel, but the technique is less effective by the time it makes its 10th or 15th appearance. Each plot twist fills the viewer with an exciting uncertainty, but the film consistently falls back into familiar tropes before too long. This back-and-forth is incessant, flip-flopping from tired to wired and back again for the duration of the film’s 90-minute runtime. The Perfection is undoubtedly a B-movie, but the result lies somewhere between B-sharp and B-flat.

Rating: C