The Autopsy of Jane Doe. 2016. Directed by André Øvredal. Screenplay by Ian B. Goldberg & Richard Naing.
Starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Catherine Kelly, Jane Perry, Parker Sawyers, Mary Duddy, Mark Phoenix, & Sydney (as Stanley the Cat).
42/IM Global/Impostor Pictures
Rated R. 86 minutes.
Disclaimer: This review discusses important parts of the film’s plot + themes. If you’ve not yet seen the film, watch it, then come back and discuss. Or else, be forever spoiled!
When I saw The Troll Hunter I knew I wanted more from André Øvredal, whose talent is undeniable. That was a great, unique film that connected the Old World with the New World in interesting ways, juxtaposing folklore and mythology with technology by way of the found footage sub-genre.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe does something similar, yet the subject is wildly different. In this film, Øvredal again conjures the folk tales of the Old World, letting them collide with modern day. A father-son coroner duo, Tom (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), encounter a Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) corpse found just below the dirt in an unfinished basement, amongst other victims of violent death. Except as the pair conduct their autopsy, looking for cause of death, they find strange links to witchcraft and superstitions of centuries ago.
There’s a mystery aspect to the plot, but the whole story is built on suspense and a severe, restless tension. Øvredal turns up the heat on us and the characters, a feeling of isolation in the basement morgue. In between it all is a look at the fragility of life, the care of bodies – specifically, women’s bodies – and the age old nastiness of misogyny.
Out of the gate, the film oozes both atmosphere and a measured style. Mood is set in the opening scene with a frank look at a crime scene, a mysterious, gruesome house of horrors, including the unknown woman, Jane Doe, buried in the dirt downstairs. Everything’s shadowy, grim, macabre, an air of uncertainty blanketing the top of the plot’s bare bones we’re fed in the initial five minutes. Such a strong start, you feel involved before actually figuring anything out, or even meeting the two protagonists.
Claustrophobia and isolation drive the film, down below ground, in a basement; further than that, in a morgue, surrounded by the dead. This ratchets the tension, as one grisly discovery gives way to another, and another, until the eeriness piles atop the characters, the audience, crushing with a steadily paced descent into supernatural terror; very human to something else entirely. Shifting from the grounded plot to a fantastical atmosphere makes the latter half land with even more intensity.
Once the finale rolls around, a horrifying fear sets in, one we cannot escape, and that claustrophobia’s become so stuffy the pay-off deals a heavy, sinister blow.
The contrast between the dead and the living is ever present. First and foremost is the care of women’s bodies. An interesting juxtaposition, seeing how living men have desecrated this Jane Doe’s body, inside and out, with such horrific cruelty, versus the way Tom and Austin, even while dissecting her for the autopsy, treat her body with care. Likewise, the way death then affects the father and son is compelling. For instance, we see that death and its continual presence in their lives hasn’t jaded them, after Austin finds a small wounded animal in one of their air ducts, and his father must break its neck to put it out of its misery. Again this contrasts them with the brutes who tortured then murdered Jane Doe.
What’s most intriguing is the film’s thematic consideration of misogyny, through the lens of witchcraft. A woman becomes a witch through the brutality of men, a metaphor concerning how men and their misogynistic violence, whether mental or physical, transforms women, negatively. And in this case, Jane Doe takes her revenge on men ni general, as well as any unlucky women caught up with them. Perfect, as the witch is directly linked to the history of misogyny, their punishment simply for being women, being free, for enjoying the sensual in life when they wish. So the fact Jane Doe, through torture and cruelty, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy in a sense is such a strong element, a wonderfully unique take at that.
Moreover, the finale shows the evil done by men is cyclical, never over. Because the woman’s been instilled with that evil, just as many women are stained by the awful actions and misogyny of men. Since time immemorial, truly. And so that cycle goes on, the body forever tainted, the horror perpetuating and living on. Even decent men like Tom and Austin are caught in the vicious whirlwind of revenge, because men as a gender have reaped such effects; that’s the point, and the Not All Men crowd don’t get that in general, it’s such a widespread problem we have to accept it’s a male problem, as a whole.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a fresh breath of horror, up there with some of the best of the past few years. Really fun watching the two leads unravel a supernatural mystery using science, the Old World on a collision course with modern medicine, a witchcraft story from previous centuries in present day. Øvredal squeezes the life out of the audience, in the best way possible, suffocating us with an atmosphere that does not quit.
Of course the acting all around is fantastic. But it’s Øvredal whose talents take this film to the next level. It isn’t always easy keeping things so tightly wound, so harrowing with only a sparse cast, a boxed in setting. He does it with precision, not allowing a moment’s breath or relaxation after the adrenaline kicks in hard.
I’d watch this any day of the week. After it came out, I watched it probably once every couple months until now. Something about it catches me, the atmosphere’s intoxicating. Sucker for those isolated horrors, from this sort of setting to one more like Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an element that works wonders if a director uses it to their advantage. Put this on your Halloween list. Definitely good for a scare.