Perpetrator: this feminist flick puts the gory in allegory

Assuming the mask of a slasher/superhero film to critique a patriarchal system that feeds on the exploitation of women, Jennifer Reeder’s fifth feature is funny, freaky and full of feeling.

Kiah McKirnan as Jonny in Perpetrator (2023)
  • Reviewed at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

“Jesus, girls go missing all the time,” says high-school senior Avalon (Ilirinda Memedovski) some way into Jennifer Reeder’s new film Perpetrator, barely convincing even herself of her lack of empathy. “I mean, what’s the big deal?”

Reeder is a chronicler of missing teen girls. The last feature that she both wrote and directed, Knives and Skin (2019), traced the disappearance and death of high-school cheerleader Carolyn, and the ripple effects that her mysterious absence sends through her community. But whereas Carolyn suffered a heart attack alone, in Perpetrator – as its very title suggests and the opening sequence reveals – a malevolent figure very much exists, in the form of a masked heavy breather serially picking teenage girls off the streets and taking them to his makeshift basement surgery. He, however, is not the film’s focus, even if viewers will be kept guessing his identity. Rather, Reeder has her sights on his pool of potential victims – school girls on the cusp of womanhood learning hard lessons about their status in the real world – and in particular on Jonquil ‘Jonny’ Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan), a mixed-race tearaway with a talent for theft.

Jonny’s long-absent, forgotten mother is “not in the picture”, and as the errant adolescent’s 18th birthday approaches and she starts arriving home with nosebleeds from her violent fence Kit, her white, pill-popping father Gene (Tim Hopper) can no longer cope with his daughter’s transition into womanhood, and sends Jonny to her great aunt Hildie (a gleefully weird Alicia Silverstone) for guidance. Hildie initiates Jonny into a long tradition in her family’s female bloodline: a supernatural empathy, latent until adulthood, which mutates with each successive generation. Armed with these new powers, Jonny joins forces with her new girlfriend Aviva (Casimere Jollette) and sets about tracking down the missing schoolgirls, only to discover that the abuses, indignities and iniquities faced by these young women daily in fact start at home.

Lit in Bava-esque colours, dripping with sexual frankness and surreal humour, and filled with characters whose bleeding or bandages are signifiers of a deeper collective trauma, Perpetrator assumes the mask of a slasher/superhero film to expose a patriarchal system that feeds on the exploitation of women. This is an allegory of female solidarity and empowerment, where both sexuality and gender prove fluid, where “the pain and the blood” that define women’s biological and sometimes social experience are embraced and weaponised, and where empathy itself becomes a transformative antidote to male oppression. Funny, freaky and full of feeling, Reeder’s genrefied feminist flick is a big deal.