Just when you thought filmmakers and creators had exhausted everything worth saying in American high school-set comedies and thrillers, along comes Chicago-based independent Jennifer Reeder, who seems devoted to this subgenre as if by a monastic oath. The high school movie––with its classic, standby imagery of jocks, lockers, and losers––seems to have passed through three main cycles in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, and in spite of its absolute specificity to the US education system, has found itself weirdly comprehensible and translatable in many different cultures. With Ghost World a notable exception, it’s also never felt especially feminist, which is what makes Reeder’s perspective fresh and novel. 

Reeder––whose independence from typical US film-financing structures, art school background, and genre inclinations make her comparable to Anna Biller (The Love Witch)––has devised a nifty, sometimes gnarly little horror-thriller with Perpetrator. Indebted to the two king Davids (Lynch and Cronenberg), it’s perfect to be viewed slightly sleepy-eyed at a late-night festival screening, where the refracted imagery and gnomic, repetitive dialogue can lull one into a half-oneiric state. There’s a campy, stilted quality, particularly to the acting, that partially diminishes it, and it still plays squarely within genre confines without exploding them, albeit with tweaks of originality. But really the ultimate point of Perpetrator––which hopefully will play a few more prestigious festivals following its well-deserved Berlin premiere, before it hits Shudder––is to be a bit perturbed, a bit irritated, and to walk out feeling you’ve had a big, bracing gulp of someone’s home-brewed artistic vision, prowess, singularity. 

Our focal character is Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), Jonquil for short, who initially lives a peculiar life of petty larceny and sporadic school attendance, where the cash generated from fleecing stolen rare books (“I have a first edition of Wuthering Heights,” she says, to which her patron replies, “Do you have Jane Eyre?”) helps her unemployed father with rent. On the eve of her 18th birthday she’s sent to live in her great-aunt Hildie’s (Alicia Silverstone, given plentiful screen time) Chicago townhouse, whose interiors are decked in gothic, velveteen patterns. Reminiscent of Bene Gesserit from the Dune mythos, Hildie reveals that Jonny is subject to a hereditary psychological and corporeal power, “forevering,” that’s explained in vague, windy terms, and better witnessed for its uncanny visual phenomena than reduced to rigid definitions. Essentially, she’s able to mimic and act as an agent of physical healing to the women around her, although occasionally this ability extends to men; there’s a contradiction by which Hildie apparently awakens this power in her, through the form of an 18th birthday cake, despite Jonny showing capabilities of “forevering” in scenes prior (which take the form of mutual nosebleeds and Lost Highway-esque facial morphing). 

This and other attacks on cause-and-effect logic in Reeder’s script always leave Perpetrator excitingly unstable and the viewer forced to lean in. These sequences are often enhanced by quartz-like visual patterns, discontinuous cutaways to objects such as candles and photo frames (a nice steal from Wild at Heart), and other experiential turbulence. 

There’s a mystery involving five missing young girls, and a particular vogue for plastic surgery amongst the adults we meet in the story, which creates a key antagonistic counterforce to Jonny’s abilities and helps explain the peculiar absence of her mother in her family life. Reeder boldly conceives of the patriarchy as an extractive force, not just harming female solidarity and individuality, but using it as a resource to grotesquely mine from. This “snap” moment towards the end, where Perpetrator’s plot arc, thematics, and visuals are all coherently brought together, make up for when it feels more generic, unconvincing, and distracted.

Perpetrator premiered at the 2023 Berlinale and will be released by Shudder.

Grade: B

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