Perpetrator title image
Director
Cast
, , , ,
Rated
Unrated
Runtime
100 min.
Release Date
09/01/2023
Perpetrator poster

Within the first scenes of Perpetrator, where a masked, gas-sniffing psychopath, rubber-gloved and shirtless beneath his slaughterhouse apron, kidnaps a teen girl, the experience sends out Lynchian vibes. Writer-director Jennifer Reeder seems to have conceived her film after a marathon of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks. Her characters look in the mirror to see their faces changing; behave in equally campy, horrific, and hilarious ways; and exist in a world that feels like a state of unconsciousness. Eerily hypnotic, the film entrances you with some scenes, baffles you with others, yet remains intriguing in its surreal execution. Whether Perpetrator plays like an original work or a pastiche of Lynch’s sensibilities depends on your experience with him. Either way, Reeder’s toolkit consists of disturbing imagery and fantastical situations, which amount to a personal coming-of-age tale about a nonconformist young woman learning to embrace her inner monster. 

Unlike most Lynch stories, Reeder doesn’t play to the genre conventions of “A Woman in Trouble”—the tagline of Inland Empire (2006), though it could work for Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. (2000) as well. On the surface, her account of high school girls stalked by a killer may seem that way, but she’s more interested in empowering her characters. So while the story takes its name from and involves a kidnapper of young women, Reeder is more concerned with the relationships and growth that come out of her characters learning to survive, albeit using gristly metaphors. The subject matter is nothing new for Reeder, whose last feature, Knives and Skin (2019), explored similar territory—a teen girl goes missing in a small American town, revealing all sorts of disturbing details about the community and its inhabitants. Peering under the surface, Reeder once again finds plenty of festering rot and morbid behaviors, which is fertile ground for self-discovery. 

Central to Perpetrator is the motherless Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan), whose father (Tim Hopper) seems to be dealing with some shape-shifting problems. Needing time to get himself together, he sends Jonny to live with her Aunt Hildie, played by Alicia Silverstone in an unconventional, mannerist performance with macabre, comic exaggerations. The Gothic surroundings and Hildie’s ornate, witchy appearance suggest a repressive environment at first, as Hildie expects the rebellious Jonny to obey the house rules. Situated in a town with a string of missing girls, Jonny’s new school isn’t much better. The strange school nurse misdiagnoses Jonny with bad eyesight and heart murmur before asking her, “Are you popular?” Decidedly not, she answers proudly. Worse, the demented principal (Christopher Lowell) gleefully carries out live shooter drills with a squirt gun, wearing garb worthy of Patrick Bateman. Likewise, his behind-closed-doors sexual antics with the nurse have an unhinged quality that might be funny if they weren’t so jarring. 

Unfortunately, Perpetrator spends far too little time with Jonny and Hildie. Silverstone gives the film’s best performance, in that it’s a pleasant bit of oddity. But McKirnan doesn’t have the presence to give the underwritten Jonny life, and the characterization feels doubly inadequate once she falls into a romance with fellow outsider Elektra (Ireon Roach). When Jonny learns from her aunt that with her 18th birthday comes primal supernatural abilities, there’s bloody, menstrual symbolism to spare. Yet, the relationship between Jonny and Hildie never deepens or moves the viewer. Later on, the high schoolers fight back against the masked killer who runs a chop shop, where girls are “stripped of their parts” and turned into blood bags, complete with a vaginal opening from which the killer exsanguinates his victims. Jonny and company set out to stop him, worrying, in a stroke of deadpan irony, how long they’ll be grounded if they’re killed. 

Reeder creates an aesthetic more stylized than Knives and Skin but just as dependent on a Lynchian tonality—the sense that every character exists in their own bizarre headspace. Besides Lynch, the director and her cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati tap into the dark and psychedelic style of Panos Cosmatos (Mandy, 2018), Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977), and other filmmakers, using slow fades and jarring close-ups to disorient the viewer. The approach dabbles in sublimely grotesque and nightmarish body horror, too, especially in the finale. But Reeder often sacrifices substance for style, and rather than a fully realized visual agenda, she seems to be trying things out to see what fits—and not all of it does. To be sure, Reeder doesn’t quite have the visionary formal, narrative, and thematic cohesion of other feminist filmmakers in the horror genre, such as Julia Ducournau (Titane, 2021) or Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, 2013). However, Perpetrator has too many strengths to dismiss. 

For all her potent imagery, Reeder isn’t subtle about her intent, often putting too fine a point on the discussion of trauma and empowerment, as though she didn’t trust the audience to glean the themes from the narrative. Then again, Perpetrator paints in bold colors—clotty reds and corrupted yellows—so Reeder’s aggressive style will appeal to those versed in slaps-you-in-the-face imagery. And while it’s impossible to deny the wonderfully gross quality of the film’s nasty, orifice-like wounds and the mind-boggling dream imagery, the story and characters don’t have the same authority. Thematically, the film offers a welcome feminist message to misfits to draw power from their inner freak and turn that into a rebel’s strength. But the ambitious, meandering narrative and weird-for-weird’s-sake execution, overly dependent on Lynch’s methods, left this critic at an emotional remove. Even so, it’s evident Reeder has raw talent, so here’s hoping her next film is more focused and original.

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