Film Review – Perpetrator
Writer/director Jennifer Reeder juggles several themes throughout Perpetrator (2023). Although the final result is messy and disjointed, I found myself wrapped up in the story if only to see where it all goes. This is a slow burn horror flick with a lot on its mind – from female victimization, misogyny, adaptation, and survival. It is also a bizarre, darkly funny tale filled with copious amounts of blood and gruesome imagery. Does it all work? I’m not so sure, but we can appreciate the level of ambition Reeder brings to the table. I’m much more interested in a movie that has lofty goals and barely reaches them as opposed to one that simply settles for the mundane. Thankfully, this is more of the former rather than the latter. At the very least, it’s never boring.
Reeder introduces so many varying elements that at times we get lost in the weeds. One minute, we’re witnessing a coming of age tale of a young woman learning to become herself. The next, we’re dropped into a devilishly sinister crime mystery. Minutes later and we’re caught in the middle of a David Cronenberg-like body horror film. When mushed all together, the different pieces fit but do so awkwardly. The movement from one scene to the next is clunky – the narrative doesn’t flow smoothly but in stops and starts. For example: when we first meet our protagonist, Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), she is in the middle of robbing a home in hopes of making a quick buck. We see her wearing a fancy dress she stole, admiring herself in front of a mirror. The sequence is meant to represent her wish for a better life, but the idea (along with the dress) are abandoned and never heard from again.
Maybe that’s the point? Perhaps Reeder is commenting on the way women must adapt to a male-dominated world, where circumstances can change in an instant, forcing them to drop their aspirations? Before she realizes what is happening, Jonny is sent to live with her Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) who informs her that they have a special power called “Forevering.” Apparently, Forevering allows a person to empathize with anyone, so much so that their faces physically changes to resemble them. The details of this are a little fuzzy. Along with feeling every emotion of other people, Forevering also causes one to become feral, sporting animal teeth and a snarling grin. Jonny’s newly acquired skills come in handy when her school experiences cases of female students going missing.
Perpetrators’ biggest weakness is in how it establishes concepts but doesn’t explore them thoroughly enough to feel significant. The narrative is a collection of interesting bits that only work on a surface level. Is Forevering a power or a curse? Aunt Hildie causes Jonny’s powers to blossom by having her eat a cake filled with blood. The image is spooky, for sure, but why a cake? Why couldn’t it be a blood filled crepe, croissant, or donut? In another scene, Aunt Hildie punishes Jonny for stealing lipstick by forcing her to eat it. The confrontation is grotesquely funny, but it only works in a vacuum – there’s no further attention paid to it and is never brought up again. Much is made about Jonny’s school relentlessly going through active shooter drills, but is portrayed as a matter of fact. A movie does not need to explain every mystery and answer every question to be successful. In fact, leaving space for ambiguity allows viewers to bring their own interpretations. But the narrative needs to stand on solid ground for us to fill in those spaces. Reeder is clearly going for a dreamlike, abstract approach. The problem is that the execution is random and flimsy at best.
On the other hand, Reeder and the rest of the production demonstrate a remarkable visual style. With Sevdije Kastrati’s cinematography and Justin Krohn’s editing, Reeder incorporates deliberate cinematic techniques to amplify the nightmarish atmosphere. When Jonny experiences an episode where her Forevering takes over her body, the camera will shift into a kaleidoscopic view, depicting her face splintered throughout the screen. Close ups of hands, teeth, and eyes are utilized to mark Jonny’s switch into a new state of being. She goes from a young woman to a kind of animalistic superhero. The best moments are when Reeder allows us to sit and take in the gloomy (yet beautiful) aesthetics. One of the most striking images is that of a person swimming in a sea of blood, with darkness surrounding them. It’s an otherworldly, haunting sight, which resonates through the rest of the runtime.
The mystery of Jonny’s missing classmates plays out similarly to the Italian giallo thrillers – meaning style takes precedence over plausibility. The question over the identity of the unknown assailant (or “perpetrator”) is not very interesting, and doesn’t really pay off once all the secrets are revealed. But what the set up does allow for is some truly gruesome horror. The production design and art direction provide plenty (and I mean plenty) of blood and guts, opting for a surrealistic effect. Reality transitions into fantasy, where color – predominantly green and red – floods the screen in big splashes. Once we get to the climactic scenes, Reeder has taken us into the mouth of madness, where realism is pushed to the wayside. Some will find this artistic choice aggravating, while others may find the spontaneity refreshing.
I sit somewhere in the middle when it comes to Perpetrator. Although the story barely holds together and the world building leaves a lot to be desired, it’s hard to ignore Jennifer Reeder’s talent in terms of craftsmanship. The performances all around are solid, including – but not limited to – Kiah McKirnan in the lead role and the supporting work from Alicia Silverstone (who eats scenery with hammy glee). I may not have been convinced of every single detail, but there’s enough skill on display to acknowledge Reeder’s voice in genre filmmaking.