What happens after a famously disparaged actress gets vindicated? Plenty of folks would now agree that the media narrative about Megan Fox circa 2009 was unfair, conceding a decade-plus later that Michael Bay was the bad guy in their Transformers dust-ups, Fox’s pinup-ready image was the product of Hollywood’s unrelenting male gaze and her attempt to prove herself outside of the fighting-robot franchise, Jennifer’s Body, is a damn good movie with a strong performance from its “controversial” star. But vindication can only go so far. The star market is still down, Fox never really became a major leading lady and her newest movies are opening mainly on VOD. At least the near-simultaneous release of those two titles affords an opportunity to explore her work as a star outside the harshest of spotlights. It may not be a coincidence that both movies involve her getting chained up by psychotic men.
Till Death, which came out earlier in July, initially doesn’t appear to play to Fox’s strengths. For about ten minutes, it’s a dour marital drama where Emma (Fox) extricates herself from an affair in an attempt to reconcile with her wealthy husband Mark (Eoin Macken). It quickly becomes clear that Mark is controlling and abusive, but he’s able to keep his worst tendencies just tamped-down enough to give Emma some hope—until she wakes up the morning after their seeming reconciliation handcuffed to her beau…who promptly shoots himself in the head. The burden of Emma’s terrible relationship becomes physicalized and literalized as she has to drag the bastard around with her as she evades the criminals Mark has hired to come after her.
This trim, compact movie is primarily a thriller, but it has horror-adjacent elements—practical gore; Mark’s Jigsaw-esque messages from beyond the grave; dark and gruesome flashes of humor—and that’s what ultimately makes it such a great match for Fox. From her popping red lipstick in the pre-mayhem sections to the blood splatter that perfectly soaks half of her face, Fox looks like a femme fatale captured mid-morph into scream queen. After years of objectification, she feels in control of her bombshell image. When Emma finally frees herself from the perceived obligation of making her marriage work, Fox’s performance turns scrappy and spiteful—and Till Death fairly crackles as its heroine must wriggle her way out of danger. 15 or 20 years ago, this would be a solid February programmer or August drive-in attraction, proving its star’s mettle.
There’s a retro tinge to Midnight in the Switchgrass, too, though it’s less flattering for all involved. When Fox first started acting in films, Bruce Willis was still a going concern as a movie star; no longer a consistent draw, perhaps, but regularly appearing in mid-budget studio projects. Now he’s an overpaid value-added element to straight-to-VOD content, and Midnight in the Switchgrass adds Fox to his self-made purgatory. Fox and Willis play FBI agents tracking sex criminals and traffickers, often using Agent Lombardo (Fox) as online-then-IRL bait for creeps while Agent Helter (Willis), perhaps informed by the work habits of the actor playing him, waits in the car. For a while, the movie affords more screen time to a local cop (Emile Hirsch) tracking a serial killer who preys on similar victims, as well as the killer himself (Lukas Haas), who projects the image of a gentle family man; Fox and Willis seem to be Rosencrantz and Guildensterning their way through the proceedings.
It would be a stretch to call Willis engaged in this material, but there’s something comfortable about watching him trade testy, sweary dialogue with Fox, well-cast as a no-bullshit avenger of exploited girls and women. The movie, though, shows less interest than Till Death in observing her fight back against subjugation. Fox is barely on screen for a minute before the camera catches sight of her barely-covered ass, and the closest thing this movie has to a twist is just an exhumed cliché: The tough, reckless Lombardo winds up victimized by the very killer she’s (eventually) trying to stop! Fox is literally chained up in a shed for the movie’s uninspired climax, as if the filmmakers are directly punishing her for her feats in Till Death.
Switchgrass is a true nothing of a movie, padding its slim runtime with what it seems to imagine are ruminations about the tragic desperation of Pensacola, Florida, but are in fact clips from earlier in the movie. It’s a character study without characters. Within this swamp of clichés and motley crew of gigging actors—the notoriously difficult Willis; accused abuser Hirsch; reformed Pussy Posse member Haas—Fox is the one who comes across as too good for the movie. Not because the rest are bad actors (they’re not), or because she’s particularly convincing as an FBI agent (though she’s more convincing as an “awake person at work” than Bruce Willis), but because she has a standoffish spark, even if the movie does its icky best to chain her up.
It makes sense that Fox was left out of the superhero gold rush of the years since her debut; she excels in genre, but not that genre. (It also makes sense that her one crack at it was in the ill-fated Jonah Hex, more horror-western than triumphant fantasy.) Fox doesn’t come across as typically gothic in the manner of Winona Ryder in the 1980s, but there’s a reason she looked so right in a spoiled prom dress with blood on her mouth in Jennifer’s Body: She has currents of mordancy, which is part of why she wasn’t a great fit as a pliant girlfriend in two Transformers movies, and why it’s equally hard to picture her in, say, the MCU, where so many women are forced to play the ultra-competent, level-headed ex. She’s developed a ruefulness about her, whether naturally or particularly informed by the constraints of her initial experiences in the film industry. It’s entirely because of Fox that Switchgrass stays compelling far longer than it should, raising vain hopes that she’ll be able to work it into something pulpier and more defined. Despite the eventual disappointment, I hope she sticks with genre fare a bit longer, and finds some more shackles to break.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.