The Autopsy of Jane Doe is certainly making a bit of a splash on the festival circuit this year. I’ve read some very positive things from some very reliable folks. And I thought director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter was a ton of fun. So, I was very interested in seeing it. Before we get too far into this though, let’s address the elephant in the room – Emile Hirsch. Last year, he drunkenly attacked and choked a woman (for being “a rich kid” if accounts are to be believed) at a Sundance adjacent pop-up nightclub. Obviously, that is unacceptable / reprehensible. I had a bit of a ‘separate the art from the artist’ quandary when trying to decide to see this film or not. Should I pay money that will go to Hirsch – a convicted assailant and presumed asshole? Or should I not give money to a guy like that? To his credit, he apologized, plead guilty, served (a minuscule amount of) jail time, paid a fine, and did some community service. Is he a rage-monster when he’s not so drunk he has trouble standing (as he did when the police arrived that night)? I’m not sure. Maybe he’s an alcoholic. Either way, I hope he grew and he’s getting the help that he needs. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on that front. Guess I’m an optimist after all. Who knew? I assume – being the bright folks that you are – that you’ve already figured out whether I ultimately saw the movie. I did (at the Chicago Int’l Film Fest). Let’s get into it, shall we
Police discover four bodies in a home. Three of those bodies – a middle-aged couple and a criminal – can be explained to a satisfying degree. The fourth is an unidentified young woman. Let’s just call her… Unidentified Young Woman. (i’m kidding! it’s Jane Doe!) She’s found partially buried in the dirt floor of the basement without a scratch on her. By all estimates she hasn’t been dead long. The sheriff asked the local morgue / crematory owner to get a COD (cause of death. just a little morgue pro lingo I picked up. NBD) ASAP because the press is going to be all over his ass on this weirdness. Morgue guy (Brian Cox) and his son (Hirsch) get right to work. Each new stage of the autopsy turns up a new unexplainable / weird thing. To add to the tension, the town is being hit with a massive storm that’s wreaking havoc on the power grid. Or maybe it’s not the storm causing the electricity to cut out? Maybe that and the increasingly strange things going on in the morgue basement have something to do with Unidentified Young Woman!
The Autopsy of Jane Doe starts at a place that most people find uncomfortable – a morgue – with a subject that most people find uncomfortable – cutting up dead people. So, right out of the gate, the viewer is put on edge. We are seeing something that we are not meant to be seeing. The film even features a scene that illustrates this point wonderfully in one of its few moments of levity, when Hirsch’s character’s girlfriend asks to see a corpse. Once the autopsy starts, the father and son team works with objective efficiency. The two are professionals who work with the dead in an old basement. They’re not easily rattled. As obvious as that statement may seem, that’s not always the case with similar characters in similar scenarios in other movies. Jane Doe refreshingly allows its setting, subject, and atmosphere to set the fearful tone of the first half of the film, rather than rely on jump scares or character panic. (that may not be a thing, but you get the point) And Cox is a rock in this regard. He delivers a performance that rivals his turn as Hannibal Lecter. Both characters exude a calm, intelligence that Cox nails perfectly. Hirsch plays his part well too. His next-generation medical tech doesn’t have the wisdom his dad does and he’s a bit more idealistic, but he has his dad’s scientific reasoning. This (brilliantly) puts most of the fear and anxiety of the first two acts on the audience. We must bear the brunt of it because we do not have that scientific objectivity. Now, you may have noticed that I qualified my statements above with terms like “first two acts”. Unfortunately, beyond that, the film becomes a bit more formulaic. A bit less atmospheric. And a bit too needlessly expository. (and the recurring jingle is a bit too annoying and hackneyed and bafflingly anachronistic) Furthermore, the epilogue-ical (?) ending feels trite and tacked-on. It’s really too bad that such a strong start ended on such a weak note.
The Final Cut: The Autopsy of Jane Doe features some great performances, gut-churning gore, clever shots, and plenty of dreadful atmosphere. It starts off strong as a unique, intimate creeper, but bogs down a bit as it climaxes into an all-too-familiar string of genre tropes.