Allison Williams, Logan Browning, and Richard Shepard break down the gruesome twist
Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Netflix’s new movie The Perfection. Read ahead at your own risk!
So, that trailer with the cockroaches squirming out of bodily orifices no creepy-crawly should ever touch had you fooled, right?
If you watched Richard Shepard’s genre-bending psychological thriller The Perfection (now streaming on Netflix) over the holiday weekend, you now know the film is not (as previews deceptively teased) a creature feature centering on a parasitic plague, but rather a haunting, visceral rape-revenge genre hybrid about a former cello prodigy, Charlotte (Get Out‘s Allison Williams), who hatches an elaborate plan to liberate a successful (and brainwashed) musician, Lizzie (Logan Browning), from the clutches of the sexually abusive, pedophile leader (Steven Weber) of a musical academy they attended as children. But, before it crescendos to its gruesome conclusion and reveals its true identity, The Perfection is, at times, a steamy international romance; a gritty crime saga inspired by Korean cinema; a Showgirls-style meditation on the dangers of competitive obsession — and it all ends with a hard-earned wig reveal that segues into a peculiar (yet devilishly satisfying) final shots.
As you come down from the shock of taking the wildest cinematic ride of the year, EW asked Shepard, Williams, and Browning to break down the film’s major plot points in a spoiler-filled discussion below. Read on for the full conversation.
The Perfection gets to its big reveal in unorthodox fashion. From the start, shortly after Charlotte’s mother dies, the film kicks off with her journey to Shanghai — where esteemed Bachoff leader, Anton, and his partner, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), prepare to celebrate the selection of a new student with a concert starring Lizzie — typically enough. The women endure the ceremony, but make their way out to a nightclub, and have sex after professing mutual adoration for each other’s work (and reminisce about their brief, decade-old encounter on the Bachoff stairs as Charlotte was leaving the building and Lizzie was entering). That’s when things get weird.
The next morning, Charlotte accompanies Lizzie on a bus tour through the Chinese countryside. Lizzie complains of a headache, and Charlotte gives her extra-strength painkillers. Miles away from the city, Lizzie starts vomiting bugs, which promptly gets her and Charlotte removed from the vehicle. In the middle of nowhere, Lizzie continues to expel critter-lined bile. She then sees them squirming around under the skin of her arm, but Charlotte has a plan, and provides Lizzie with a meat cleaver she’s conveniently hidden under her coat this entire time (yes, really) in the hopes that Lizzie chops her own arm off (she does!).
Later, a flashback shows us that, instead of painkillers, Charlotte drugged Lizzie with her deceased mother’s hallucinogenic pills, which guided Lizzie’s subconscious to see bugs under her skin when, in fact, she was roach-free the entire time. No longer able to play cello, Lizzie is then ejected from Bachoff. With nowhere left to go, Lizzie travels to Boston to hunt down Charlotte, who tells Lizzie her real motive: They were both raped by Anton — whose pursuit of divine artistry included punishing his students via sexual assault — as children, and manipulating Lizzie into hacking off her most prized limb was the only way to render her useless to Anton and therefore break her from the cycle of abuse.
Soon, the pair is back at Bachoff (Lizzie feigns a fit of lunacy and delivers a gagged-and-bound Charlotte to Bachoff for punishment for the arm incident as a means to infiltrate Anton’s fortress), ready to mince their former mentor and his cohorts…
ALLISON WILLIAMS: Her mom basically tells her the academy offers a life and a way to be great…. She moves from Minnesota to Boston at such a young age. Her life was isolated before then, because to be good at an instrument like this requires such practice. When you’re on track to be a prodigy of something, I imagine it’s a very lonely experience, so I don’t picture Charlotte as well-socialized. And everything that happened to her [at Bachoff] happened at an age, when she was forming a sense of self…. Once she’s out of that vacuum of trying to sort through her memories and knowledge of what happened in her life, I imagined her telling her mom and her mom being unreceptive…. after her mom passed, she had a break, and was able to see — with clarity — this memory of the moment in the stairwell, when she was leaving and being saved and another girl was entering this horrible environment. She fixates on it. It’s representative of all the other moments she could’ve taken action and someone has suffered as a result.
LOGAN BROWNING: When someone in a position of power has influenced your mind with terror and pain, they’ve offended your body, pride, and your sense of self, and when someone has offended your body like it happens with Lizzie, it was a subliminal moment. When she cuts off a part of her body…. there was no other way for this girl to get to the point on her own of realizing she was brainwashed. She was blind!
RICHARD SHEPARD: We were very specific about what we wanted to shoot differently for when you saw it the second time. There are certain shots that we duplicated in slightly different ways, but it was all very scripted. We just didn’t have the time to redo the entire sequences. Instead, we were very surgical about it. The first time I saw it in editing, I thought, “Oh, this is really fun.” And it is fun for people to see something that they’re sure that they saw and then see something slightly differently the second time. And if you watch the film carefully there are certain times where we repeat a moment, but it’s a different performance. Specifically when Allison pulls out the cleaver and says, “You know what you have to do,” the first time you see it is one performance and the second time you see it is a second performance.
Anton’s punishment is justifiable, but Browning initially fought for a different ending
Their breach of Bachoff’s borders is a success, and Lizzie and Charlotte take out Anton’s staff one-by-one. They save the master for last, engaging him in a knife fight (he gains the upper hand at one point and slashes through Charlotte’s forearm) that ultimately leads to his defeat: The duo cuts off his arms and legs, and sews his eyes and mouth shut, forcing him to listen to only their music for the rest of his life.
BROWNING: I remember discussing and debating with Richard about whether or not Anton lives. I was adamant about the fact that I didn’t want him to live. After filming that, I wanted the satisfaction and catharsis of his life ending. Not that I agree with that in real life, but for the movie’s sake and that character’s trauma, I wanted him gone. Richard thought it was important to have all of Anton’s access removed from him: We took all limbs — including what a man thinks is his most powerful limb — and only left his ears, forcing him to listen to women. He can hear their cello no matter how good or bad it is…. It was very emotional for me because I know so many people in my life who have been abused in a variety of ways, specifically sexually, mentally, and physically…. I felt like a superhero for everyone who’s ever experienced that.
WILLIAMS: Given how powerless they felt on that stage for so many years, to be back up there and take that power back while taking all of Anton’s away was the most poetic thing they could imagine. By rendering Anton senseless — with the exception of his mind and ability to hear — they imprison him in a way that they felt silenced for so long — and he must listen. He has no choice. They have full control. When Logan and I talked about Charlotte and Lizzie and what they’d been through, there was a force to the way they felt, that made them want to resolve it this way, with power, control, dominance, and urgency…. It’s fitting, but he’s probably not long for the world. In many ways, it’s more torturous to put him through this. It just makes it so that they can send him off totally on their own terms with having had a final say.
And, about that wig reveal…
Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, rejoice! Just before Charlotte and Lizzie tell Anton they’re going to “chop [his] balls off and sell them as trinkets,” the former pulls at her hair, which falls to the floor as it’s revealed she’s been wearing a wig throughout the entire film. The real Charlotte steps forward brandishing a knife and a Mia Farrow-esque hairdo, though a flashback reveals it wasn’t an aesthetic choice: Following Charlotte’s departure from the Bachoff school, she was admitted to a mental institution and given several rounds of electro-shock therapy, for which they shaved her head.
WILLIAMS: We see her with her hair as it is. That reflects the pain that she went through and the work that she had to do to come out of it and find clarity. It’s a wound from having defended herself for a long time against someone who’s attacked her on so many occasions. It’s defiant and forcing this person — with whom she felt so unseen and unheard — to [see her].
Yes, they’re actually playing the cello together — with only one arm each — in that final shot
Credit for the duo’s chemistry in the final shot extends far beyond the script and Shepard’s direction. Not only does the impassioned, gold-hued image serve as a contrasting callback to the first shot of the film (a stark, cold, blue-toned shot of Charlotte’s deceased mother), but it also represents a culmination of Williams’ and Browning’s dedication to a perfection of their own, as they spent months learning how to play the cello on their own and together.
WILLIAMS: The last shot was what sealed my desire to do the movie…. It’s representative of what I think the whole movie is about: the power of a duet… That sense of pride that you see and the defiance; they’re realized people. They’ve gone through unique arcs of coming to terms with something so painful and have taken action that people, for the most part, dream of being able to have physical actual revenge in a situation like that.
BROWNING: For probably a week before we shot that, I showed up at Allison’s apartment with Richard to figure out how we’d go about doing it. It is what that chapter’s title is: A duet. Women get to that point not alone, but with the help of other women who’ve been through the same thing and who know what’s happening. I hope men watching it get on board with that, too, and understand that it’s not always a duet; it’s a choir that helps give women that power they deserve…. I hope everyone reevaluates how we treat women and women’s rights to make their own decisions in this country.
WILLIAMS: We were playing an actual song we both learned, and it was tricky to learn just one half of, but it felt powerful playing with her! We both started to learn the whole piece with both hands, and quickly realized we wouldn’t have time to learn the whole piece because it was so complicated. I learned some bowing and Logan learned the fingering alone with our instructors, and we’d practice together when we could.
No, The Perfection isn’t directly inspired by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements
The Perfection was announced to the public in September 2017, just three weeks before The New York Times published an exposé alleging movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted multiple women over the course of several decades. The Times article catalyzed a cultural shift, with subsequent exposés centering on the alleged misconduct of Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and more. Though issues of sexual harassment and abuse have become more prevalent in the press, The Perfection existed long before the watershed moment.
WILLIAMS: It was mostly informed the summer before all of that happened. The writers [Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo] and Richard were watching The Keepers on Netflix, so that was top-of-mind…. while we were working on it, we kept sending articles to each other that we wanted each other to think about. While we were in Vancouver prepping the movie, the Larry Nassar trial was happening. I don’t know that these things informed bits of dialogue, but I do know it was something we were obviously talking about and engaging with. It made it feel more urgent and it also made us very concerned we didn’t want people to think in any way we’re trying to capitalize on the movement. It’s not like we saw how this was going and then rushed to put together a movie to use the momentum of it. It was the contrary; this had been brewing because, unfortunately, this is an age-old problem. This is a systemic issue, and the fact that it was already in existence, this script and this idea when this came to light, it’s proof that it’s, in the worst possible sense, timeless.
All those split diopter shots are a nod to Brian De Palma
Often times, Shepard and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul — who shot the pilot of Ugly Betty that Shepard directed — cued up shots where both Charlotte and Logan were visible, even if one was in the background and the other the foreground. That’s an example of a split diopter shot, a calling card of director Brian De Palma’s work.
SHEPARD: I talked a lot of about Brian De Palma, who’s one of my favorite directors, and those movies of the late ’70s and ’80s that he did, like Dressed to Kill. There are all these beautiful split diopter shots. Brian De Palma at his best was always able to make something seem elevated, even if it felt very genre, and that’s because he was a master filmmaker. The filmmaking was so specific that it was able to transcend and make into art something that, in another person’s hand, would’ve been a slasher movie. I think that we brought a lot of that into The Perfection in terms of, how do we make each shot count here in a very beautiful way so that an audience watching the whole film will feel in very safe hands with the filmmakers? I also think that we’re very used to close-ups in general because we watch a lot of television. So, I try to hold off close-ups until moments when they actually matter and then they do have an incredible effect.
The Park Chan-wook effect
Shepard counts himself “a big fan” of director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and The Handmaiden, which makes sense if you look back on The Perfection. Oldboy has such unsettling imagery far beyond a squid-slurping lunch scene, while The Handmaiden is a mixed-genre story revolving around lesbian love, and both have twists that feel larger than a simple narrative turn.
“I felt like the way certain Korean cinema is willing to twist things completely is something that’s not done in American movies,” Shepard said. “American movies might have a twist or something but the way that the Koreans look at it is so different — it’s not only a twist, it’s almost like another movie.”
The Handmaiden was uniquely influential. The story unfolds over three parts, much like the structured movements of The Perfection, and features a “presentational performance element in the middle” that Shepard describes as “creepy and odd.” In one such scene from The Handmaiden, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is forced by her uncle to perform sensual readings of the rare books he hopes to sell to potential (and pervy) buyers. “You can keep people on the very very edge of their seat without having to necessarily be action-packed,” Shepard notes. “If the tension is in the character it can actually be even more tense.”
So, where are Charlotte and Lizzie now?
With three bodies and a mutilated stump of a man left in their bloody wake, what are Charlotte and Lizzie to do with their lives now? Because, as it seems, opening a bed & breakfast is probably not in the cards.
BROWNING: They have a mess on their hands with all the people they murdered. It’s going to take a while to figure out how they’re going to address that [but] I want them to start a women-led conservatory where young people are allowed to seek an artistry without an ideal of perfection, where they’re free and liberated enough to not try to please people who are in that power position.
WILLIAMS: We love that idea because it’d be a way for them to continue doing the thing that gave them so much joy in a way that would bring them real joy at no cost, given that there was unbelievable cost earlier in their lives.
The Perfection is now streaming on Netflix.