Monday, August 28, 2023

A Coming of Rage Story: Jennifer Reeder’s Perpetrator with Alicia Silverstone

(Jennifer Reeder, 2023, USA, 101 minutes) 

A killer of young women stalks Chicago just as a 17-year-old girl develops strange new powers--these two developments will eventually converge in Jennifer Reeder's blood-soaked coming-of-rage story.

Much like HalloweenPerpetrator opens from the killer's vantage point. It's late, and a young woman with long wavy hair wearing a pink fur coat walks down a suburban sidewalk. The stalker's breath plays on the soundtrack. The woman looks around from time to time as if she senses that someone might be following her, doesn't see anything, and keeps moving. 
Finally, she turns around to face an all-consuming light. The screen fills with whiteness. When shapes snap back into focus, she's in a shadowy room, sleeping a drug-induced slumber. A masked man leans over to speak to her dozing figure: "Girls like you just don't know what you've got until it's gone."

Reeder then switches gears to introduce the film's true protagonist, 17-year-old Jonquil "Jonny" Baptiste (Chicago native Kiah McKirnan, last seen in Night Sky), breaking into a well-appointed home. She grabs a bottle of pills and stuffs a silver-sequined dress and matching heels into her handbag. Afterward, she fences the other small items she grabbed, mostly rare books.

Once home, she hands the money and the pills to her father, Gene (Knives and Skin's Tim Hopper), as "rent." He downs a dose. While he stares at himself in the bathroom mirror as his face appears to warp and woof–which doesn't look like much fun–Jonny models the dress in her bedroom, but when she checks in on him, he's passed out on the floor in a pool of blood. He will revive, but before he does, she considers splitting the weird scene.  

Jonny changes her mind at the last minute, but then Gene receives a call from her Great Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), who says, essentially, "It's time," so he puts Jonny on a train, explaining that he needs to get his head together. Hildie, who resides in an elegant, dimly-lit walk-up, looks like a goth fatale with her Catherine Deneuve-in-The Hunger hair and blood-red lipstick (Silverstone watched Tony Scott's film to prepare; it knocked her out). Jonny moves in and prepares for senior year at her new school.  

From the start, Hildie doesn't seem as if she means Jonny any harm, but she gazes at her oddly and has a very precise way of talking, as if she attended a mid-century finishing school--and she does suggest that she's been around for a few lifetimes. Silverstone is very good in a part some may find overly-mannered, but I could have used more of her arched-eyebrow oddness.

Everything about the situation suggests that Jonny is undergoing a physical transformation of some kind--her heart rate quickens, her nose keeps bleeding--and that Hildie is her mother. Or knows what happened to her. 
If Jonny is as much of an outcast at her new school as she was at the old one, the school itself is pretty strange. The nurse (Audrey Francis) asks invasive questions and has the bruising and facial gauze indicative of a nose job (by the end, her head will be swaddled in gauze and surgical bandages). 
Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell) is also an odd one. The way he speaks to the girls about safety, while a killer is on the loose, strikes an off-key note, and he seems to be having too much fun during active-shooter drills. Clearly, he's up to no good, but he isn't the only bad guy in the scenario. 

To judge by Lowell's career since Veronica Mars, I might have assumed better intentions, since he started out by playing good guys, but after Promising Young Woman, it comes as little surprise that Burke's enthusiastic demeanor disguises pretty dark desires (that said, Lowell's performance as Bash, the energetic producer on GLOW, remains his finest to date). 

It doesn't help that Jonny brings her penchant for petty crime to the new neighborhood, except Hildie doesn't reward her for her transgressions the way Gene did--on the contrary, she punishes her--but she still finds a way to break the rules to curry favor with her favorite classmates (played by Casimire Jollette, Ilirida Memedovski, and Knives ands Skin's Ireon Roach; all quite good). 
All the while, she experiences strange bleeding episodes, which arrive with alternately trippy and squishy imagery--some of which recalls the kaleidoscopic point of view of the mutant baby in Larry Cohen's It’s Alive–including an unidentifiable figure swimming through crimson-hued waters. 
Once Jonny passes the threshold from 17 to 18, Hildie explains what's happening to her. She isn't a vampire, but something else altogether, though it also involves blood. Not to give too much away, but she acquires a kind of radical empathy, allowing her to feel what others feel--including those no longer among the living--and even to project their essence. Once she gets a handle on the thing, she decides to use her powers to catch the killer. 

Soon she ends up in the same place as the victim from the prologue, giving her a chance to put her newfound skills to the test, except things don't end there. Her physical reactions and escape maneuvers will come to involve the other girls, both those the killer abducted and those not yet targeted. 
Along the way, Jonny has a same-sex fling, which could turn out to be something more, and learns about the true nature of her parentage. The tech credits, including returning composer and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist and keyboard player Nick Zinner's synth-based score, contribute to a compelling, if not especially scary atmosphere, though I'm not sure scary was exactly what Reeder was going for, since Perpetrator incorporates elements of satire that echo previous high school and high school-haunted feminist horror stories, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Jennifer's Body.
If anything, Reeder's fifth and most ambitious feature to date--I've also written favorably about Signature Move and Knives and Skin–doesn't lack for ideas, and she manages to stitch all of them together at the end, but it still feels as if she could've pared things down a notch or two. Jonny's queerness, for instance, doesn't manifest until the end. Reeder doesn't explore it in any way, and yet it seems that it could have been integrated into the narrative more significantly, especially since her body is rapidly changing (she only considers a fling with a straight boy for tactical reasons).

Fortunately, Kiah McKirnan, who made her national debut in HBO's riveting Mare of Easttown, handles Jonny's every change with aplomb. Not counting a 2016 short, she's only been acting in earnest for three years, and her inexperience shows at times, but her spirit and conviction compensates for any minor awkwardness, and I look forward to seeing more of her work. 
In the end, though, what drew me to Perpetrator, beyond Jennifer Reeder's work, was the participation of Silverstone. Hollywood doesn't always know what to do with former teen stars, and she made a lot of unsatisfying moves after the triumph of Amy Heckerling's Clueless, but ever since she played a grieving mother in Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I've wanted to see her explore the darker side of her persona. It's an opportunity with which Goodnight, Mommy filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz also provided her in The Lodge, featuring her doppelganger Riley Keogh. 
To Filmmaker magazine, Jennifer Reeder said of Alicia Silverstone," Now I just want to make the rest of my films with her," and in Perpetrator's production notes--in addition to most every interview she's given about the film--Silverstone says she would also love to continue to work with Reeder. I truly hope it happens–she's the best reason to see the film.
Perpetrator opens in select theaters on August 28 and premieres on Shudder on September 1. Images from the IMDb (Alicia Silverstone), WTFilms (Kiah McKirnan), Mashable (multi-exposure still), and Wikipedia (poster).

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