Jennifer 8 Blu-ray Review: Ambitious but Flawed Crime Story

Jennifer 8 wants to be more than a serial killer story. It has the elements to be more. Friends with complicated relationships. An inappropriate romance between a cop and a witness. He’s divorced and lost. She’s blind and too young. And the entire serial killer scenario might be just the cop’s invention. It wants to be more.

Buy Jennifer 8 Blu-ray

But despite so much going in its favor, it doesn’t quite make it. What’s here is compelling, sometimes fascinating, or funny or disturbing. It’s also uneven and frustrating and feels like someone in the studio saw something good and said, “Yeah, but what if we did this?” and wrecked it.

We open (after a brief couple of scenes watching Andy Garcia wake up in his new, strange house) in a garbage dump, with cops sifting through trash to find the knife of a suicided derelict. It’s not on his body. This search leads to the discovery of a girl’s severed hand, and a spiral down which John Berlin (Garcia) slides.

This is Eureka, California, in the north where it snows. Berlin is from Los Angeles, newly transferred to hook back up with his old partner Ross (Lance Henriksen.) He’d wanted to get him up here for years. Berlin is a divorcee and a former drunk. The locals resent him because they think he’s trying to make a name for himself right out the gate with this severed hand case. They have other fish to fry; he thinks he’s found a serial killer.

And in a flash of intuition, he decides the killer targets blind girls. Which leads him to an institution for the blind where a girl has gone missing. There, he meets Helena (Uma Thurman) the last person to… well, not see the missing girl, but be with her. And she heard the man she was with. His name is John, too. And felt similar to Berlin.

What makes Jennifer 8 interesting is that it constantly dances with ambiguity with its characters. Is John Berlin a cracker-jack detective who can see something no-one else sees, or is he an arrogant ass making things up? It’s not at all clear early on in the film.

He finds similar killings in California, eight dead blind girls. But most of the girls were killed in San Diego, which was where Berlin went over the last few years, chasing his cheating wife. The movie never makes a direct case that he’s a secret serial killer, but it makes the story ambiguous enough that it throws doubt on any of his direct claims. He’s as plausible a perp as this phantom he can’t prove exists.

For the first hour, Jennifer 8 plays an intricate, interesting game, and it feels like it has some more cards up its sleeve. Then there’s a poorly motivated, weirdly out-of-tone sequence where Berlin and Ross stake-out the blind institute that ends in disaster. Berlin leaps straight in the crosshairs of investigators. It’s a taut sequence, with excellent direction… from a different film. In this movie, it feels like an executive put their foot down and said, “Do some regular ‘serial killer movie’ stuff!”

Plot implausibilities compound. The last 40 minutes of the movie are interesting, but do not take place on this Earth. It’s a shame, because there are some fantastic performances, including John Malkovich’s FBI agent. He interrogates Berlin and manages to simultaneously convey menace and absolute indifference. He’s just doing his job. His job is to be a monster.

Jennifer 8 contains a rare humanity in this kind of police procedural. Uma Thurman in particular plays her part beautifully. She’s a blind woman, completely competent, but she doesn’t become Daredevil with extra-sensory perception. There’s a sequence where she is left alone in a party, jostled and disturbed by loud noises which is every bit as harrowing as Berlin chasing down his serial killer in shadowed halls.

That’s the movie at its strongest, finding moments of humanity in what could be a standard police-procedural plot. And apparently, the intent of the movie was different from what it ended up. The Berlin character was meant to be played by a much older actor. According to Andy Garcia, the studio cut nearly 20 minutes from the film, completely changing its character. Director Bruce Robinson, who directed the fantastic character study Withnail & I, hoped Jennifer 8 would launch him to greater commercial heights. It flopped at the box office, and it was almost 20 years before he directed another film.

Jennifer 8 is interesting but disjointed. It has an intriguing mystery, a love story, and a film about friends that feels like it requires a delicate balance. That delicate balance got stepped on, and so kind of doesn’t work at all. The stuff that’s here that’s good. It has the feel of a ’90s thriller, with its clinical details and terrible crimes, which make up my personal favorite film genre. And the performances are almost universally great. In particular, Lance Henriksen gets the chance to play a normal human being, not a Nazi or a monster or a robot or anything weird. He’s terrific. Jennifer 8 has all the hallmarks of an interesting balance of genres, a kind of auteur work, which got bigfooted by the system and crushed into something less than it could have been. It’s still entertaining. Just disappointing.

Jennifer 8 has been released by on Blu-ray by Scream Factory, a division of Shout Factory! Extras include an extended edition of the film, with the original ending; “Is it Dark Yet?” (43 min), a new feauterette with interviews with Bruce Robinson, Andy Garcia, and Lance Henriksen; the deleted ending on its own (5 min); and a trailer.

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Kent Conrad

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