Jennifer Reeder’s Perpetrator is a Glorious Slice of Revenge Feminism and a Paean to Girl Power

When Jennifer Reeder takes you by the hand you are guided into a universe where mascara runs like blood, teenage girls wear glitter and sequins like armour, and the strange world of being young can be a deadly place for everyone that crosses the threshold. Reeder’s work is the poetry of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, filled with longing, anger, fear, and dispossession but in Perpetrator it is the anger that is given metaphorical and literary breath. Like 2019’s Knives and Skin Reeder once again immerses the viewer into a town where missing girls ripple like echoes through the community. Whereas in Knives and Skin there was a single missing girl, Carolyn, Perpetrator has several and their absence irks but is equally just expected. That is until Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) comes to town and ferociously hunts the predator known as the perpetrator.

Jonny is a seventeen-year-old thief living with her addict father, Gene (Tim Hopper). Her mother has been absent for many years, just “out of the picture” and Gene is having trouble coping with Jonny’s emerging womanhood, so he calls someone asking for time to get himself together. The person on the end of the line is Aunt Hilde (an imperious and magnificent Alicia Silverstone) who takes Jonny in and gets her set up at a new school. Hilde is cold, regal, and darkly disturbing but Jonny who is used to an unsettled and lonely life is a match for her. Whatever mysteries Hilde is alluding to, Jonny is not going to be going gentle into any of it.

At her new school she is asked bizarre questions by the school nurse Marcy, a woman bandaged up after cosmetic surgery. “Are you popular on a scale of no one would ever miss you to everyone would do anything to be you for one day?” the Nurse asks. Jonny responds, “No one would want to be me.” For this she is awarded a gold star. The school evokes an inverse Suspiria – other than the Nurse it is run almost exclusively by men with Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell) making the mostly female student population go through active shooter drills and self-defence classes. “Remember to be scared,” he intones with a weird glee. There is only one male student in focus, Kirk (Sasha Kuznetsov) the resident heartthrob and football star. Reeder wants you to see the young women, those that are present and absent. Avalon (Ilirida Memedovski), Poppy (Avery Holliday), and Aviva (Casimere Jollette) are the in-crowd. Elecktra (Ireon Roach) is not popular but forms a specific bond with Jonny. Then there are the missing girls: Evelyn, Darby, and April P. These girls didn’t just disappear they were taken violently by a masked man and kept in a basement where he tells them “Girls like you don’t deserve what you have.”

Jonny is about to turn eighteen where she will be inducted into the family “curse” – something known as the Forevering where she will be filled with so much empathy and feeling that she will be able to take on the form of other people. Hilde, her guide, lets her know it will hurt – it will be agony. Reeder doesn’t shy away from the burden placed on women by patriarchy. Jonny was already rebellious and dangerous with blood streaming out of her nose from violent punches. After the Furthering she is feral and animal-like. She is ready to strike out and take revenge. Blood soaks her dreams and her waking hours. Hilde dips her fingers into Jonny’s menstrual blood that dripped on a rug and the blood opens a portal to a specifically female place; a portal that Jonny uses to locate the missing girls – the deep red becoming her power.

It is said that youth is wasted on the young. Reeder takes this maxim and makes it literal. Whoever is taking the teen girls is specifically taking them for parts. The adults in the town are obsessed with youth and plastic surgery. The perpetrator (perhaps a little too easy to guess in terms of identity) is a bizarre amalgam of fictional serial killers like Buffalo Bill and real killers like Ed Gein. He’s also deeply pathetic crying out “I’d fuck me, I’d fuck me.”

Jonny along with girlfriend Elecktra, Nancy Drew the hell out of the mystery. Kirk is a locus for all the missing girls – each of them hooked up with him. His dad, the town policeman turned up soon after and then the girls were gone. Elecktra who also hooked up with Kirk says there is something not right about the cop. Again, Reeder is taking rational fears from women that law enforcement will not protect them from predators and making it a specific plot point. There is no-one for the girls of this small town to turn to except to each other.

Reeder’s feminist thesis can be at times wickedly funny, deeply bizarre, wonderfully and violently strange, but for all its otherworldly weirdness it is grounded in the real-life experiences of young women. Perpetrator is a nightmare that young women have over and over. By turning the film into a horror-soaked revenge thriller with Giallo overtones Reeder is crafting a smart and subversive rebuke to patriarchal oppression, not just from men but the crumb maidens who facilitate that oppression through subservience and conforming to objects of male desire.

Angela Carter taught us that there is a wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Jennifer Reeder teaches us that there is a dark power in young women – their rage. If they turn that rage outwards against the norms that oppress them instead of inwards into self-loathing they are a mighty force. Perpetrator is a unique and substantial investigation into the mysteries of growing up its inherent dangers. Girl power isn’t just a slogan in Perpetrator, it is a ferocious energy that can obliterate those who sought to feed off the fear and perceived vulnerability of young women.

Director: Jennifer Reeder

Cast: Josh Bywater, Avery Holliday, Casimere Jollette

Writer: Jennifer Reeder

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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