[Fantasia 2023 Review] 'Perpetrator' Unleashes a Feminine Fury that Rips the Heart Out of The Patriarchy
Jennifer Reeder is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in the horror genre right now. Love or hate her work, each and every film she puts into the world has a strange, haunting quality unlike anything else out there. Her latest body horror meets murder mystery feature, Perpetrator—which just played at the Fantasia Film Fest—is yet another example of why Reeder is a name to know.
Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a seventeen-year-old thief just trying to survive, has started noticing some changes in herself. Unfit to take care of her any longer, her father sends her off to live with her aunt, Hildie (Alicia Silverstone). There, she discovers that she’s inherited a great power from a long line of women, one that can be as much of a curse as it is a gift. Meanwhile, a sadistic killer preys on teen girls in town, inching ever closer.
Perpetrator explodes onto the screen with a blend of POV shots from a killer stalking a young woman and credits done in pink cursive over splashes of blood dripping down the frame. From there, we meet Jonny, in the middle of stealing an assortment of items before meeting up with another criminal to sell her finds, receiving a hard slap when she denies the prick sex. Upon returning home, her dad remarks with seeming sincerity, “I like what you’ve done with your face,” in response to her bloody, broken nose. In just the first few minutes, Reeder exposes a world of danger for women with one clear message: Not only do men pose a constant threat of violence, but they enjoy it.
Maybe it isn’t intentional, yet the comment from Jonny’s dad serves as a reminder of the long history in life and in media of women enduring physical violence for entertainment, much to the pleasure of men. Any honest horror fan could agree that while the genre has uplifted women as heroes kicking ass and taking names, there’s also a bevy of films which depict unspeakable acts against women purely for entertainment value. Brutality against female bodies is a common theme within Reeder’s filmography (see the excellent Knives and Skin). But while Knives and Skin was more of a dreamy exploration of the ways in which the death of a young woman affects a community, Perpetrator unleashes a feminine fury that rips the heart out of the patriarchy and takes a juicy bite out of it.
A play on the puberty horror genre, Perpetrator takes us on a surreal journey with Jonny through the strange changes overtaking her…a powerful transformation which makes men like her dad uncomfortable. You can almost imagine Reeder’s delighted cackling at the type of bros who squirm in their seat every time they hear the word “period”, the film references this particular bodily function so frequently. The filmmaker incorporates various vaginal bleeding motifs through gallons of blood splashed across the screen, from the way in which Jonny’s nose bleeds in sync with other noses, to gory birthday cakes representative of becoming a woman and literal dives into an ocean of red. Oh, and you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a man fist a bloody mattress.
Though the body horror of growing up has significance to this story (executed with a bit of Cronenberg flare), Perpetrator is less about the act of becoming a woman and more about what that means for Jonny. It means drawing the attention of men awful and less awful. It means having the knowledge that the turn around every corner poses a threat. Most important to the film, it means having to take on a legacy of pain passed down throughout the centuries from women, expressed through a theme of mirrors and the idea that women have a shared aching. Reeder’s thematics can be a bit heavy, but they engage with their nails dug in, endlessly fascinating to observe. Compelling performances from both McKirnan and an overbearing Silverstone (she’s still got it) also help to make up for the film’s scars, of which there are a few.
Perpetrator isn’t exactly a welcoming experience. I once said Reeder’s work had the nightmarish surrealism of a David Lynch film but with her specific brand of weird deserving of the label “Reeder-ian”, and I stand by that. With that comes an understanding that her work isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like weird, you probably won’t like Perpetrator. The film bounces between a nightmare and strange humor, such as a principle who performs school shooter drills by dressing up as a gunman and spraying teens with a water gun. It’s all very odd, and can be off-putting to any viewer not willing to let themselves go with it.
Intriguing as Reeder’s take on womanhood is, it doesn’t gel as well with the murder mystery plot at hand. The changes which Jonny is going through work wonderfully on a thematic level, but play little to no part in helping with her—much too brief—investigation of the killer plaguing the streets. It’s like if the Karate Kid had spent an hour of the film learning karate, only to pull out a bazooka in the end and blow the antagonist away. Working against the film as well is the fact that the villain is portrayed as so damn pathetic, that there isn’t much tension or scares to be found. “Men are weak” is an honest portrayal and fits well into the narrative, but such a poor antagonist make for a less compelling story.
Blemishes aside, Perpetrator is a bewitching take on womanhood that acts as a scream of rage for women everywhere. Ferocious, repulsive, and magnificent all at once, not all of it hits, but when it does, Reeder lands a satisfying punch that makes Perpetrator a welcome addition to the “good for her” category of horror.
Perpetrator arrives in theaters and on Shudder September 1st.
Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film covered here wouldn't exist. I support the members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
By Matt Konopka