Review: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Jennifer's Body (2009) Jennifer's Body (2009)

If there was an intention beyond B-movie schlock, it’s not clear to this viewer.

Whatever you may think of Jennifer’s Body, this conversation between its writer Diablo Cody and star Megan Fox is as revealing ten years after the film’s release as it is important and relevant, to audiences and to film-makers, today. The two discuss how, in their respective experiences in the eye of the storm of mainstream popular culture and consumerism, there is clearly a threshold beyond which one can be deemed – and demonised for being – too appealing, too “hot”, in a variety of ways, and the disproportionately brutal and very real impact on the livelihoods and mental health of those viewed through that lens (via ET):

Only after watching, and being moved by, that conversation did I watch Jennifer’s Body for the first time, more than ten years after its release – removed enough from the baggage of the reception of its time, ready to view it on its own terms, and to hopefully read it as intended. If there was an intent beyond B-grade schlock, much less a personal statement that both Cody and Fox felt they had expressed only to be let down by the film’s marketing, I missed it.

Jennifer’s Body is neither outrageous enough to be camp, nor inventive enough to feel subversive. It takes too long to say too little, and it doesn’t spend enough time resolving or even exploring the many things it seems to set up. The dialogue is neither tight enough nor biting enough to make this Heathers-meets-The Lost Boys, which one might have reasonably expected given Diablo Cody’s previous film was Juno, and that director Karyn Kusama‘s debut was the wonderful Girlfight. Add to that, the perfect casting not only of Megan Fox as a vampy, campy, literal man-eater, but also of Amanda Seyfried as Needy and a proportionately campy foil in villain Adam Brody, and the final film being less than the sum of its considerable parts becomes all the more difficult to understand.

Perhaps Jennifer’s Body isn’t “for” me. So: who is it for, and what is it saying to them?

More often than not, horror films are a metaphor for something real, or at least reflect real anxieties of their time and place. So I’ve been scrambling to make sense of Jennifer’s Body ever since.

One potential reading is that the character of Jennifer is a metaphor, merely an extension of Needy’s own confusion over her pubescent, developing sexuality. But that seems unfairly reductive: the relationship between Jennifer and Needy feels too specific, too true-to-life, and speaking to something too directly, to simply be metaphorical.

Perhaps it’s only in Needy’s eyes that Jennifer is a “vampire”, a “succubus”, a “murderer” – while in reality, it is Needy’s jealousy of, attraction to, and possessiveness of Jennifer’s body, which sends Needy, not Jennifer, into a murderous frenzy – and that her “powers” in the end are merely part of her psychotic break from reality?

Is it that Needy blames herself for letting Jennifer be taken by the band that night? That Jennifer perhaps blames Needy? That Jennifer becoming a “monster” is merely her increasing coldness and distance as they grow apart, unable to reconcile what Jennifer’s sexuality has driven between them?

Or, viewed more literally: is the story about Jennifer unlocking the power of her own sexual appeal? She seems to be well aware of it before becoming undead – so what actually shifts, in terms of her power, morality or stakes, when she becomes a literal succubus? What is the night of Jennifer’s transformation – of her butchering – supposed to mean?

When Jennifer’s brutal murder scene is simultaneously played for laughs by its female writer, and framed as horror by its female director, how is the viewer supposed to feel?

If it’s a dark comedy, how are we supposed to feel about Jennifer’s victims, when each is more sympathetic, each character more developed, than the last? And if it’s a horror film, why is its most realistically terrifying scene also played for laughs?

Late in the film, we’re finally shown what happened to Jennifer. The way the Satanic ritual murder is portrayed here, it may as well be a gang rape scene – one in which the victim tells her brutalisers her name, and so evil are they that it still does not humanize her to them one bit more. After the almost exclusively schlocky B-movie aesthetic of the horror that’s come before it, this moment marks a dramatic tone-shift toward something out of a ripped-from-the-headlines rape drama like The Accused. The scene plays for an uncomfortably long time – one could argue necessarily, as it keeps us trapped with Jennifer in an all-too-realistic terror, and forces us to feel the sheer hopelessness and senseless evil of it all. It’s effectively sobering, and definitively at odds with the scenes in which the male characters are violently murdered.

Diametrically at odds with this scene’s darkness, however, is its dialogue. Adam Brody’s “Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days? … Satan is our only hope” monologue is legit funny. It would be unambiguously, unproblematically so, in a completely different type of scene. Both in its portrayal and in its place in the structure of the film (it’s a late-stage reveal, an almost – yeesh – climactic revelation), this scene veers uncomfortably close to torture porn territory.

So when Jennifer’s brutalization is simultaneously played for very specific laughs by its female writer, and framed as a very real horror by its female director, how is the viewer – particularly the male viewer – supposed to feel? I’m neither assuming nor even suggesting this film is “for” male viewers, but it does at least raise the question: who is it for, and what is it saying to them?

Cody and Fox talked about being read unfairly for what they were perceived to be, while not being considered based on what they actually offered. Years later, in my attempt to watch the film on its own merits, is it possible that I’m giving Jennifer’s Body more thought than seems to have gone into it? Given the thoughtfulness of the people behind it, I remain at a loss for how that could be.

Further Viewing

“Framing and aesthetics supercede the rest of the text. Always. Always. Always.” It’s impossible not to refer to Lindsay Ellis‘ excellent video essay on Feminist Theory in her series on Michael Bay’s Transformers films, Framing Megan Fox | The Whole Plate: Episode 7: