Review: Jennifer Reeder Channels Female-Centric Mystery, Identity and (Lots of) Blood in Perpetrator

In Jennifer Reeder's latest, Perpetrator, both women and blood feature quite prominently. It's a stark pairing, and it plays as a reclamation of sorts. Even if the filmmaker is never explicit about it (and she is explicit about many things), there is something undeniably feminist about the way blood features in the lives of teen Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) and her great-aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), and it's oddly thrilling. Reeder has made a name for herself in female-centric teen horror with a certain degree of weirdness, particularly with 2019's Knives and Skin. She attempts the feat again here, to mostly successful ends, in the story of a young woman seeking identity and a place to belong while discovering who she really is along the way. With blood. Lots of blood.

It's the first half of Perpetrator that is the weakest, as Reeder, who also wrote the script, builds a world around Jonny, her struggling father and the new school she attends when he sends her off to love with aunt Hildie. What is probably supposed to feel mysterious and intriguing is instead a bit of a drag, as we're left with more questions than answers about what we're watching. Jonny and her father have a strained relationship, and when he's no longer sure how to give her what she needs, he sends her off to aunt Hildie and a private school. At Hildie's, she sleeps on a bed with no bedding but a massive blood stain (weird), and at school, she has to participate in absurd self-defense classes overseen by a very strange Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell), who also runs school-shooting drills complete with fake blood splattered all over the students (so weird).

Through it all, there's a sub-plot about girls from school going missing, all of whom have recently gone on a date with high school heartthrob Kirk (Sasha Kuznetsov). When one of her newer friends, Aviva (Casimere Jollette), also disappears, Jonny decides she can go on a date with Kirk and bait the abductor into taking her to wherever the other girls are being held. And it's right about here where Reeder finds her footing, as the film leans into its gory, intense drama and we finally start to get clued in on at least some of what's going on. It turns out (and this isn't a spoiler) that Jonny is part of a long line of women who, on their 18th birthday, go through something aunt Hildie calls Forevering, a sort of supernatural gift that manifests differently for each woman but always brings with it a whole host of complications. As Jonny figures out how to use her gifts to recover the girls being held captive (and used for some truly unspeakable purposes, I might add), secrets about her family and the cast of characters we've come to know are revealed like the proverbial onion being peeled.

Overall, Perpetrator is a passable thriller that gets stronger as it progresses, even if it's the sort of film that thinks it has more to say than it really does. There are a lot of great starts throughout, from Silverstone's eerily intense aunt Hildie (it's truly nice to see her back on screen) to Reeder's theme of female youth as both something to be protected and consumed. The film's final scenes certainly do a lot to connect many of the loose ends introduced at the beginning of the film, but even the reveals that answer so many of the questions of the film's first half don't entirely make up for how many of them there were in the first place. In the end, the film feels more amateurish than one would expect from a filmmaker on the upswing like Reeder. Her style remains as bold and evocative as ever; it's her scripts that continue to need some polish.

Perpetrator is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone