Director Jennifer Reeder made a splash with her 2019 thriller Knives and Skin. That film didn’t work for me, although I admit it’s something I still think about from time to time. It would probably be wise to go back and give it a second chance. Reeder’s latest, Perpetrator, is certain to have the same impact. I like this one better upon first viewing, but it’s definitely the kind of story that you appreciate more when you contemplate it later on.
Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan) is a troubled teen whose father sends her to live with her aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), hoping she can be straightened out. Their relationship starts off awkwardly, then thaws after Jonny begins to experience a bizarre transformation upon reaching her 18th birthday. Hildie explains it’s a family spell that she calls “the Forevering.” The spell allows Jonny to have an extraordinary sense of empathy, detecting the inner emotions of other people. Her new school has seen a rash of kidnappings, with several girls going missing. She decides to use her newfound skill to find out who’s behind the abductions.
Perpetrator is an eclectic mix of styles. There are moments of broad comedy, like the school principal (Christopher Lowell) staging active shooter drills by donning a mask and brandishing a squirt gun. Others are very much in the horror zone, including Jonny’s ability to reach her hand into blood and enter a menacing red dimension. Added to them is the thriller element about the search for the missing girls, along with dramatic elements involving Jonny’s lament over not knowing what happened to her absentee mother.
If that sounds like a lot to cram into a 100-minute movie, it is. Nevertheless, Perpetrator proves seductive because Reeder mixes those components in wild, unexpected ways. From minute to minute, you can’t predict which direction the film will go. That consistently surprising quality is what sucks you in. The director has her own methodically chaotic style that, if you surrender to it, creates an indisputable allure.
A poignant story can be found underneath the tonal and visual trappings. This is a tale of Jonny shifting from a girl to a woman. She’s discovering her feminine strengths and figuring out how she wants to navigate life in this new phase. The theme of womanly bonds within a family is also vital to the picture. As Hildie points out, the Forevering is passed down from mothers to daughters. Each generation receives a gift from the one before, followed by guidance on how to use that gift. Jonny uses hers to help peers, a noble trait that indicates the goodness inside her.
Kiah McKirnan is appealingly charismatic in the lead role, and Alicia Silverstone gives a sly, witty turn as the mannered Hildie. The actresses ensure Perpetrator has a human quality to carry us through the increasingly unhinged things that happen. Funny, gory, and even touching, the movie will be burrowed into your brain for a long time after you see it.
out of four
Perpetrator is unrated, but contains strong language, sexuality, drug use, and graphic bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.