New Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Director: André Øvredal
Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton
The mystery surrounding the title character of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is so intriguing and so promising that it’s all the more disappointing that it never really goes anywhere. A lot of speculation is made about her, and there’s even a revelation that brought to mind the gory 2006 horror thriller Silent Hill. But the evidence they find inside of her leaves way too many holes in the plot, and while one character makes a fairly absurd theory about her, it’s not one that the final minutes of the movie seem to support.
So what are we, the audience, supposed to think of her? Is she just another horror movie villainess, or a tragic figure who became evil after a terrible injustice she endured when she was alive? I honestly can’t tell you, because the movie doesn’t leave you with much to go on. I have my own theory about the answer, based on the evidence given in the film, and unfortunately, it’s the least interesting one of the two.
That’s a shame, because for the most part, this is a pretty good horror movie. The movie begins promisingly enough, with the police investigating a gruesome triple homicide inside a quiet suburban home. After looking over the scene, one police officer tells her superior, “There’s no sign of forced entry. In fact, it looked as though the victims were trying to get out.” Interesting.
Things take a bizarre turn when they find a body buried in the basement of the house. There are no signs of external injuries, and there doesn’t seem to any way to identify her. Who is she, and why was she buried in the basement of this seemingly nice couple’s home? Did they kill her? Were they living a double life, in which they appeared neat and wholesome on the surface but were really cold-blooded killers?
These are all interesting questions, and when she’s taken to the local morgue, a good number of other questions begin to arise. In spite of the fact that there’s no external signs of trauma, the bones in her ankles are completely fractured, and when she’s cut open, they find her lungs blackened and scars all over her major organs. How did that happen? “It’s like finding a bullet in someone’s brain,” the head coroner says, “without there being a gunshot wound.”
All of this fascinated me. I wanted to learn more about the woman, what happened to her, and what was going to happen to the coroners examining her, seeing as how the crap hits the fan when they finally open her up. It helps that the coroner’s are played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, two very fine actors who turn in strong performances here. They play Tommy and Austin Tilden (respectively), father and son coroners, and the chemistry between them is completely convincing. I actually bought them as father and son.
There are other praiseworthy elements in the film. The cinematography by Romain Osin is elegantly creepy, the editing by Patrick Larsgaard is razor sharp, and the mortuary is a masterpiece of art direction, production design, and set decoration. Ophelia Lovibond is likable as Austin’s girlfriend Emma, and while she’s not given any lines of dialogue, Irish actress Olwen Kelly is quite haunting as Jane Doe.
It’s when the movie goes full blown horror that it starts to lose its way, and that’s mainly because many of the scares are pretty predictable. Tommy has a cat named Stanley whose fate is very easy to guess, and while there’s a fairly creepy moment involving a corpse with a bell tied around its ankle lurching down a dark hallway toward our heroes, the payoff of said scene is distressingly easy to guess. Lights flicker on and off on cue. Things jump out and grab our heroes, which is, of course, followed by a musical sting. You know the drill.
And then there’s the issue with Jane Doe herself. The decision by director André Øvredal to never have her come to life was a smart one, as it adds considerably to the atmosphere. But given what we learn about her over the course of the movie, it frustrates me that the movie never reveals anything interesting about her. After all that promising build up, it’s kind of a cop out for the movie to say Oh, she’s just evil. End of story. Maybe that isn’t what the movie is saying, but given what happens in the final ten minutes of the movie, it’s impossible to interpret it in any other way.
There is so much that is good about The Autopsy of Jane Doe, that it pains me that my thumb can’t go up on it. If you’re looking for something to pass the time on a dark and stormy night, then it does its job well enough, I guess. Yet given how compelling much of the movie is, it just isn’t fair to the audience for them to be left with their hand closing on air.
Rated R for bloody horror violence, disturbing images, profanity, graphic nudity
Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)