PERPETRATOR Review: How to Be a Ferocious, Witchy Empath
Kiah McKirnan and Alicia Silverstone Star in Jennifer Reeder's new horror feature.
Cinema has been mining teenage girls since, well, there has been cinema; certainly in horror films, the bodily changes that these girls go through, and the belief of what that makes a teenage girl once she 'becomes a woman', have been used as metaphor. Perhaps not often enough by women filmmakers, though; it's time we take those images back and use them for our own power.
And in the hands of Jennifer Reeder, that image is, in the words of one of the characters, ferocious, repulsive, magnificent. Where her also excellent Knives & Skin (2019) showcased the lives of teenage girls, and their community, in turmoil as they are torn apart by a missing girl, her latest endeavor, Perpetrator, shows a teenage girl finding their power and their community, while investigating a similar crime.
Jonny Baptiste (the extraordinary Kiah McKirnan, Mare of Easttown) has become a little too wild for her father's ability to handle. She's a petty thief, with skills enough to break into homes to steal jewelry, in an effort to get out of her town. An offer (read: insistence) comes from her Aunt Hilde (Alicia Silverstone), who takes Jonny in, sending her to the local girls' private school. Jonny doesn't exactly fit into an already oddball place; she's still breaking into lockers to steal, she can hack into the school computer to change records (which at least endears her to her fellow students).
But it seems her body is going through changes above and beyond what's to be expected. Her menstrual blood is copious, and it seems she can feel the emotions of others with such intensity that it gives her, and others, nose bleeds. Her blood hitting the earth creates a gaping maw in which she can swim with abandon, and others can drown in horror. She is, in effect, a monster, or a witch if you prefer that interpretation. But Jonny is not one to be forced into hiding, as so many teenage girls are, when their body releases its power.
At first, we want to believe that Jonny will in no way succumb to the pressures and insistence of society that wants - nay, demands - that teenage girls turn their power inward, make it stew and shrivel inside them. Then we remember how relentless that demand can be. But that is where Jonny's monstrosity kicks in - she is still a human, still capable of great love, compassion, humour, sensitivity - but too often that is not seen, since Jonny is also clever, sneaky, self-sufficient, ambitious, and lacking in those graces that keep women from their power.
If it feels like this world is off-kilter, that everyone who inhabits it is not quite atuned to what we would consider reality, that's probably because what we consider reality doesn't exist - or at least, what Reeder does is set everything just off-kilter enough that we see people with their proverbial masks removed. Perhaps Jonny was brought to this place to be among something of her own kind, to be that off-kilter person to whom lost teenage girl souls will be drawn.
As the seemingly only 'sane' adult, Aunt Hilde is also frustratingly inscrutible - she has her reasons, of course, but this inadveterntly helps spur Jonny along. Silverstone is a delight as the seemingly cold and calculating semi-elder - but that calculation is a necessity. There is no way to fully explain the power that she, and Jonny, possess - Jonny must discover it herself to know how she wants to yield it, not only in her investigation, but in her first budding romance.
At times, the plot feels somewhat irrelevant - even if it involves finding these missing girls. Reeder is dropping us in this proverbial and literal bath of blood, wanting us to understand this essential bodily substance and what it means to a woman's power - that so many fear what teenage girls, especially, are capable, of, and looking ot teenage girls to recognize and own that power, to not let adults take it away from them.
At once surreal, grotesque, and yet deeply empathic, Perpetrator is dark and sensuous in its raw examination of how the contemporary teenage girl mind can, and must, see a world that means them harm, and how to fight back against it. Reeder continues to be a singular American filmmaker with her finger quite firmly on this particular pulse.
Perpetrator will open in select theatres and streaming on Shudder on Friday, September 1st.
- Jennifer Reeder
- Jennifer Reeder
- Josh Bywater
- Avery Holliday
- Casimere Jollette