OCTOBER 14, 2021
IF MEGAN FOX’S latest film, Till Death, a thriller about an unfaithful wife being tortured by her cruel, psychotic husband, is not a particularly innovative genre picture, it might at least be a vaguely interesting metaphor for Fox’s earliest years of stardom — she is treated like a trophy, talked to like a pretty idiot, punished for her perceived sluthood, handcuffed to the dead weight of a useless man, and then pursued like a wild animal by brutes hoping to make a tidy fortune from her capture. Her character Emma is extremely beautiful, woefully underserved by a bad screenplay, and seemingly very screwed; we never find out who she actually is, or what she might do for a living, or why she ever agreed to marry Mark, an unmemorable-looking man with a sadistic and misogynistic streak (Eoin Macken). We never find out, either, what drives Mark to plan the most elaborate murder-suicide in history, presumably having taken a full week off work beforehand in order to deal with the required admin, rather than doing what most sadistic and misogynistic movie husbands do, and simply strangling her or shooting her and then disposing of her body. What we do know: Emma, after many years of being bullied, belittled, and maybe beaten, has been sleeping with her husband’s colleague. In the first scene of the film, she calls things off, perhaps having begun to fall in love with him. Her husband, obviously suspicious, takes her out for an anniversary dinner and presents her with a necklace made of steel, which he clasps around her neck with all the gentleness and romance of a man fitting an electric shock-collar on a badly behaved dog. He tells her he has “a surprise,” and despite his being the kind of man a woman never wants to find herself being surprised by, she ends up blindfolded in their black Mercedes, being driven to a remote, wintry cabin in the woods.
Viewers, as the two approach the house, may find themselves recalling Hitchcock’s famous line about fresh snow being good for showing bloody footprints, an impression heightened by the way Mark has decided — like a serial killer — to play creaking music on a gramophone as Emma walks around the house, and by the fact that he has also chosen — like a serial killer — to hang an alarming number of images of his wife around the house’s built-in darkroom. By the following morning, about 15 minutes into Till Death’s total runtime, Emma finds herself handcuffed to her dead husband and condemned to drag his body through the house looking for something sharp enough to cut through bone. She wears his bloodied white tuxedo shirt and dress pants, and she looks, it must be said, incredible in all that gore, like a lioness at the kill. (“I always get people saying, ‘Nobody looks better covered in blood,’” Fox observed wryly of herself, in a recent interview with InStyle.)
Rather than a comment about Megan Fox’s stardom, or a metaphor for women’s treatment in the movie industry in general, writer-director S. K. Dale’s film turns out to be a simple and straightforward marriage fable, albeit one that views the institution as a haunted house. When Emma snarls that she will cut herself free of her husband even if it is the very last thing that she does, it is an on-the-nose double entendre about the unpleasantness of divorce, and when she finds herself trapped in a crumbling cabin with no clear means of escape, it might be read as commentary on the sick fate of a certain kind of housewife. There is an additional loony subplot about two rough hitmen who are hired to kill Emma, revolving around the necklace she is wearing and an earlier assault, but to unravel it here would take far more effort than the unraveling is worth, and it does not appear to fit into the central allegory, anyway. Suffice to say: Till Death’s selling point is not its perspicacity or intellectual rigor, but the allure of its star.
When Hitchcock made his observation about snow showing up blood, what he was actually trying to explain was his fixation on a certain sort of woman: platinum blondes, aloof and icy, the kind that might be described as being “pure as the driven snow,” even if they later revealed themselves to be less pure than they at first appeared. It is obvious that Megan Fox is not an icy blonde: she has been a redhead, once, but to imagine her with platinum-blonde hair is like picturing Marilyn as a brunette, or Jessica Rabbit with a bob. It is also true to say that she is not an icy blonde in a spiritual or a conceptual sense; she is the polar opposite of the Hitchcockian snow-white dame, primed for destruction. Fox certainly bleeds and sweats and throws herself into each hokey setup with élan, but she does so with an air that says, Can you believe this shit? She seems, hilariously, somewhat annoyed by her predicament, as if the men battering down the door were telemarketers rather than would-be murderers. She is not “cool” as in “frigid,” but cool like an actual cool girl — dry and arch, a little offbeat, terrifying in a vampy sort of way, and ultimately more Elvira than Grace Kelly. Till Death serves as a reminder that there are two obvious reasons why Karyn Kusama’s 2009 feminist horror Jennifer’s Body — streaming right now on Criterion — is considered to house Fox’s best performance, in addition to it being the best use so far of her talent: that she is extremely funny and charismatic, and that if she is not suited to portraying a helpless victim, it is probably because she is the kind of actress born to play a supernatural apex predator, instead.
Being the perfect girl for the role of an irresistible succubus is, as those familiar with Fox’s callous treatment by the media and the industry will doubtless know, both a blessing and a curse. While it is bad form to reduce an actress wholly to her face, it is impossible to discuss Megan Fox without referring to her beauty, which is not just obvious, but vaguely staggering: a beauty that produces an effect like the one pictured in a Looney Tunes cartoon when somebody is hit full-face with, say, a cast-iron frying pan. Most of it is down to nature, and some of it is what might be euphemistically called “nurture,” but the provenance of her symmetry is basically irrelevant — what matters is the way it cannot be denied, its potency driving the male dorks of the noughties to obsess over the “weirdness” of her thumbs in order to convince themselves that she was, in fact, an eight out of 10 at best. When Fox said in early interviews that she identified with Angelina Jolie, she revealed a canny understanding of the limits of her image, both stars damned by their own outré sex appeal because their audiences failed to look beyond it. Witness Jolie writing, directing, and starring in 2015’s By the Sea, casting herself as an ex-dancer with a terrible dry coif that may as well have been a wig, playing barren and neurotic, self-obsessed and barely sane, and still being pegged as untalented rather than as the sly author of a witty meta-text about her life and her persona — no hairstyle, wig or no wig, could quite distract reviewers from her very Angelina-ness, her long history of desirability, and all that brother-kissing hoopla.
Authoring her own sly meta-text about her image, Megan Fox gave us a clue as early as 2008 that she was not the easily digested pin-up fans of Michael Bay’s Transformers might have hoped for. “That year [when I turned 18],” she informed an interviewer at GQ,
I decided […] that I was in love with this girl that worked at the Body Shop [a strip club on Sunset Boulevard]. […] [A] stripper named Nikita. […] I bought her things — perfume, body spray, girlie stuff. I turned into a weird middle-aged married man. I felt like I had this need to save Nikita. […] She was sort of a tough badass, but she’d do these beautiful slow dances to Aerosmith ballads. She had really long stick-straight hair and was Russian. I just liked her. She was really sadistic and sarcastic and funny.
Titillating, yes, but also patently absurd: the story is so obviously a Penthouse-spoofing fabrication that only an idiot — which is to say, a teenage boy who happened to be looking at a photograph of Megan Fox — could have believed it. Nobody bothered to wonder whether Fox had chosen to bestow the sultry name “Nikita” on her lover as an homage to the film by Luc Besson, maybe because it was assumed she was too dumb to read subtitles, and nobody had yet guessed that “really sadistic and sarcastic and funny” would end up being a phrase that might be used to describe Megan Fox herself. “Journalists,” she later smirked when asked about the bit, her eye-roll obvious even in print, “don’t always convey what I say as a joke. They print it as if I meant it literally.” The Nikita gag had been, in other words, a Kaufman-esque riff on the very particular kind of woman she knew readers of GQ would lose their minds for.
This is what I mean when I say Megan Fox is funny: she is deadpan, knowing how to cater coolly to the male gaze and to make those gazing feel a little stupid at the same time. In 2008’s How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — a terrible adaptation of a memoir by, quite honestly, one of the worst men in the world — she plays a ditzy starlet by the name of Sophie Maes, and turns a role that is designed to facilitate ogling into a kind of modern Marilyn riff on the classic bimbo, pitching up her voice and making it sound bubblier, rounder, somehow cheaper, and less like champagne than Diet Cherry Cola. The set-piece that is uploaded to YouTube with the helpful title “Megan Fox’s Pool Scene” is, no doubt, the cinematic money-shot that she was cast for; better, though, is her delivery of a line about her character’s alleged vegetarianism. “I just think it’s awful how we’re still exploiting animals, which is why I won’t wear fur, or wear leather, or wear make-up,” she says, in a manner that balances normal, adult human speech with the affect of a five-year-old doing a preschool presentation carefully enough that her depiction of the actress as a little fool, miraculously, does not tip over into actual misogyny. “I’m a vegetarian,” she adds, tilting her very made-up face just so and flashing her white teeth, as if somebody might at any moment photograph her for Vanity Fair. Unsurprisingly, Sophie Maes ends up becoming extraordinarily famous. Is she stupid, or might she in fact be stupid like a fox?
In that 2008 GQ interview, when the reporter asks her whether her character in the new Transformers film is any more developed than her character in the first, Megan Fox says simply: “Transformers 2 is directed by Michael Bay.” When the journalist follows up by asking if they have at least managed to make the robots move in more realistic, human ways, she is amused, even a little bitchy: “You weren’t concerned,” she hits back, “about them making the humans seem more human?” Based on her IMDb page, it is not entirely clear how many times Fox has been cast as an actual human woman. She has been an underage bikini girl under a waterfall; a black-haired Barbie, albeit one whose convertible can be turned into a robot; Sophie Maes, who, despite Fox’s valiant efforts, is effectively a sweet and sexy bauble; Desi, the shop-girl-cum-escort she portrays in This Is 40, who gets to swim in slow-motion in another small bikini; a sideshow performer with a pretty pair of angel wings who lives, in a particularly funny bit of symbolism, in a glass box; a gun-toting prostitute; and the female lead in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a CGI-centric reboot whose buff, oddly fleshy turtles hail from the uncanniest of valleys.
One bright spot in Fox’s career was her 2016–’17 two-season arc on New Girl, which acknowledged her unattainable beauty, but allowed her to both emphasize and underscore it with a petrifying air of self-sufficient competence. As Reagan Lucas, a pharmaceutical saleswoman with a dry, Xanax-chill mien, she made the briefly absent Zooey Deschanel look suddenly outdated, the latter’s adorkable ukulele schtick — already an acquired taste — feeling a little more circa-2010 by the time Deschanel returned from maternity leave. Some expressiveness by this point seemed to have been lost in Fox’s face, perhaps due to something drastic and cosmetic, or perhaps due to a Monroe-like propensity for holding a particular expression — the arched and disdainful brows, the imperious, unsmiling mouth. Either way, it hardly mattered: what was funniest about the character was her imperviousness to shock, her perpetual air of even-tempered, unflappable readiness. It was a perfect demonstration of the way a real-life woman might behave if she were so beautiful that she’d never needed anything a scruffy stranger would not immediately provide her with, from a spare room in a house-share to their beating human heart.
Speaking, as we almost were, of frightening women who survive by being beautiful and eating human hearts: there may be no more effective, definitive scene in Megan Fox’s whole filmography than one from Jennifer’s Body, in which Fox, as the titular Jennifer, is celebrating her first murder while admiring herself in her bedroom mirror. In the opening 30 minutes of the film, Jennifer and her friend Needy — a sweet, bespectacled dork played by the obviously cute Amanda Seyfried in the key of Why Miss Jones, You’re Beautiful — attend a gig at a backwater redneck bar at which the band turns out to be a group of Satanists looking for a sacrifice. They need a virgin, and, in one of the film’s many neat subversions, they decide that Jennifer, who is so relentlessly vocal about sex that it appears she’s never had it, is the girl they’re looking for; they start a fire, lure a shell-shocked Jennifer into their van, abduct her, and perform a ceremony in which they offer her soul up to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. The ritual almost works, except for the fact Jennifer is not a virgin, so that rather than ending up dead, she ends up transformed into a bloodthirsty succubus who needs to consume men to stay immortal. (Another neat subversion: The film recognizes that her clumsy, motor-mouthed sexual talk has nothing to do with virginity, but with an early and perhaps not entirely positive experience with sex, and with the fact that she is 16, and therefore talks like a kid because she is.) When we see her at the mirror — glowing, every inch of her suffused with ancient, evil vigor — she has just killed, and then eaten, a teen boy out in the woods, and she is using a pink lighter to set fire to her tongue, the flesh blackening and then immediately healing as if she were never hurt. She is, in this specific moment, realizing the full extent of her own power.
“I am a God,” she says to Needy, her jaw slackening like a Valley Girl’s. What is funny about how Fox plays the line is the way it could be read as a teenage boast, a popular chick’s pat acknowledgment of the degree to which she rules the school, instead of as a factual observation being made by a malevolent entity that’s hiding in the body of a 16-year-old girl. I said earlier that Jennifer’s Body is the best Megan Fox vehicle, perfectly designed to showcase her most interesting, singular qualities as a star — it is also the rare Megan Fox film in which, despite technically portraying an age-old demon for three-quarters of the runtime, she gets to play a complete and fully realized human being. The mixture of sexual precociousness and residual babyishness she brings to Jennifer is both amusing and, against all odds, affecting, showing her talking the talk about cosmopolitan men and uncut cocks and still having her, faced with actually chatting up the frontman of the band, reduced to saying, “You guys play your instruments real good.”
If Till Death makes a vaguely interesting metaphor for Megan Fox’s early, embattled career, Jennifer’s Body makes a better, more sincere one: notice the way Jennifer’s male victims are so dumbstruck by her beauty that they fail to notice anything else about her at all, right up until she bares her considerable teeth, or the way Jennifer is chosen to be sacrificed because she shoots her mouth off about sex, then cursed because she’s apparently had too much of it. “They’re just boys, morsels, we have all the power,” she tells Needy at one point, leaning in to grab her breasts. “These are like smart bombs — you point them in the right direction and shit gets real.” This seemed, at first, to be the actress’s strategy in the media, her way of using her desirability to make a point.
When Jennifer’s Body was released in 2009, it was marketed — stupidly, ruinously — as a vehicle meant to showcase Megan Fox’s perfect body, the resultant focus on her looks alone leading her to experience what she would later describe as “a genuine psychological breakdown.” “[E]ither we made a movie that they see completely differently,” her director, Karyn Kusama, recalled thinking at the time, “or what’s in front of them is something they don’t want to see.” Fox’s desire to act decreased commensurate with her audience’s desire to see her shut up and strip off; what might have been a promising career as a comedienne ended up failing to materialize. That nobody in 13 years has cast Fox in a lead role suited to her very particular skillset proves how baffled Hollywood is by her blend of babeliness, hilariousness, outspokenness, and pleasantly blood-curdling intimidation. (Leslye Headland, who wrote a brilliantly bitchy, deadpan, overachieving, and domineering character for Kirsten Dunst — also called Regan, a name that means “little ruler” — in her 2012 film Bachelorette would, I am certain, be a perfect match for Megan Fox.)
There may be no time like the present, given the media’s reconsideration in the last six months or so of the poor treatment of attractive famous women in the 2000s — the way interviewers leered and laughed and batted away even obviously concerning accusations of foul play. While promoting Till Death and addressing the lowest points of her experience in Hollywood, Fox reached for her own analogy to describe what had happened, and whether or not she meant to make it sound like the plot of a horror film, it certainly resembled that of Jennifer’s Body: “I was brought out and stoned and murdered at one point,” she suggested. “And then suddenly everybody’s like, ‘Wait a second. We shouldn’t have done that. Let’s bring her back.’” We should, I am certain, bring her back; given the right role, she may finally succeed in proving to critics, audiences, casting directors et cetera et cetera that women can be both phenomenally hot and very funny. If we are especially lucky, given what happens to Jennifer when she is resurrected, the new Megan Fox might even end up eating Michael Bay.