With an image of wide-eyed star Allison Williams gripping a bloody cello, the poster for the new Netflix horror movie The Perfection correctly suggests the film's intertwined themes of classical music and gore. But full-on body horror might not be what curious Netflix clickers signed up for. To that end, here's what happens in The Perfection for those too scared to watch, but who want to keep up with the water cooler chat about the streaming service's latest horror offering. Warning: spoilers aplenty ahead, plus discussion of sexual violence.
The film opens with former cello protégé Charlotte (Allison Williams) staring at her mother's body in their home - Charlotte left her elite music academy to take care of her, and amid disturbing flashes of her life since leaving, Charlotte hesitatingly reaches back out to her former mentor. She ends up in China, where new star student Lizzie (Logan Browning) is performing and helping judge a competition for the school's open spot.
The non-linear film hinges on rewatching key scenes with additional information that wildly changes the meaning of previously seen events and actions. Unfortunately for the squeamish, those are also some of the film's more violent, gross-out scenes. The first and most viscerally disgusting was the impetus for the whole film. Talking to The Hollywood Reporter, The Perfection co-writer Eric Charmelo said director-writer Richard Shepard came to him and collaborator Nicole Snyder with a single idea: "[Shepard] said one of my biggest fears is being in a foreign country and getting gravely ill on a bus. You're in a country where you don't speak the language and you feel really ill and you don't have access to medical care, and in this environment where xenophobia is rampant, it certainly felt zeitgeist-y."
We'll get back to that "zeitgeist" comment in a bit. In this case, after a debaucherous evening with Charlotte, Lizzie forces herself to get on a bus for a planned deep country hike with Charlotte in tow. Lizzie feels worse and worse, until she's finally overcome. With no bathroom for miles she has to use the side of the road — if you've ever had food poisoning, that physical embarrassment's no match for the fear and horror of your own body turning against you. And that's when the situation kicks into an insectophobe's nightmare. Lizzie doesn't just vomit on the bus, her bright green puke spattered on the window has thousands of tiny wriggling maggots in it. When Lizzie's kicked off the bus by an angry driver and the two make their way towards a nearby town, Charlotte's horrified to see roaches pouring out of a cut in Lizzie's arm.
An unsettlingly convenient cleaver Charlotte hands to Lizzie later, phase two of the film's "gross-out" focuses heavily on Lizzie's mutilated arm. A healing medical injury or missing limb doesn't have to be the source of horror, but it's a tangible reminder of Lizzie's real loss: her ability to play the cello. It's also the focus of a revenge-rape attempt in the film's second act, where Lizzie threatens to shove her arm into Charlotte as payback for tricking her into mutilating herself earlier. Lizzie's helped by the academy's two teachers, and all three are continuing a chain of sexual abuse and exploitation overseen by the school's headmaster Anton (Steven Weber).
There's a lot of uncomfortable, and possibly unintentional, implications in The Perfection, including that the abuse these two young women suffered as children stunted and/or warped their heterosexuality. When Charlotte goes to bed with Lizzie the night they meet, she says Lizzie's the first person she's ever sexually been with, because her music and training took up all her time. In light of the later reveal that training involved repeated sexual abuse and rape by the school's teachers and Anton, that Charlotte's not only fully cognizant of but setting Lizzie up to "free" herself at the same time, their physical attraction's shaded by mutual exploitation. They're obsessed with each other because they're the best, but best is defined by the inner circle of an abusive teacher, physically marked with a tattoo: the same tattoo Charlotte has and spots on Lizzie in a photo, confirming Lizzie's also a victim of Anton's.
Even when the second switchback's revealed — right as Lizzie threatens Charlotte, the teachers pass out and Lizzie and Charlotte are shown to have plotted this all together to gain entry to the school's inner sanctum — it's still strange realizing Charlotte must have planned her end before she even made that initial phone call.
The cellists' mirrored pain is taken a step further towards the film's end, when both women get gory revenge on their abuser. In the attack, Charlotte's right arm isn't just stabbed, it's ripped through with a knife. After completing their plan, the two mutilated women become a single musical entity, working in tandem to play beautifully for their now-mangled and limbless abuser, tied to a chair.
Rape-revenge films are their own horror subgenre. I Spit On Your Grave, The Virgin Spring and its remake Last House on the Left, and 2017's on-the-nose-named Revenge all show horrifying sexual assaults on women who are then left for (or are) dead. The victim or their family survives, recoups, and gets revenge. The Perfection mostly fits the form, with two important differences: multiple victims, and the long lag between event and action. The more common immediacy of attack and counterattack create a cause-and-effect justification for audiences, the shock and fresh pain of what happened balanced by the gory comeuppance. That Charlotte had years to come to terms with what happened to her, and still chose to exact the kind of swift and gruesome vengeance normally spurred by instant rage, implies a real-life horror the film skirts.
What if Charlotte and Lizzie came together and went to the police, or broke their story to the media? As a culture, we've seen women come forward en masse over the years — whether in Bill Cosby's case, the alleged circle of protection that allowed Larry Nassar to abuse young gymnasts for decades, or even the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice despite accusations of sexual harassment and assault — the societal response is clear: women can come forward at great personal pain and cost, and nothing will happen. Large numbers of women can continue to come forward, and maybe the needle will move.
In The Perfection, the most efficient solution is group vengeance against abusers and their protectors. the truly frightening thought is, what if they're right?
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.