For a hot second, it seemed like Andre Øvredal was going to fix a lot of what was wrong with modern genre films. His first major film, the 2010 delight Trollhunter (which I’ve written about for this website before) was a surprising and lovely breath of fresh air into the dust-filled lungs of the found footage genre. Then he disappeared for like five years, and now he’s back with a brand new film, this time with serious American actors.
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch star as a father/son team of morticians who work out of an old country home in Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia. Hirsch wants to get out of the body biz, but much to the detriment of his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), he loves his depressed dad (who never really recovered from the death of his wife) too much to leave him alone. Right at quittin’ time one day, the sheriff drops off a body (Olwen Kelly) — dubbed, of course, Jane Doe — found buried in the basement at the site of a seemingly-unrelated triple murder, and the pair get to work. The girl’s organs display a great deal of trauma — her heart is covered in scars that could have only come from stab wounds, her lungs are blackened like “she smoked 10 packs a day for 30 years,” as Cox suggests — but her skin is completely free of any incisions or bruising. She looks perfectly normal. Then weirder shit starts to happen: flowers and a tooth wrapped in satanic parchment are found in her stomach. Before you know it, everything’s gone straight up fucking crazy.
That “straight up fucking crazy” bit is where the movie goes off the rails, as up until that point it’s a really tightly plotted and executed thriller. For that first hour, The Autopsy of Jane Doe seems to be getting towards some sort of interesting and emotional payoff or at least some solid scares. It’s competently shot in a harsh-lit, sparse way, and its sound design helps create a great atmosphere (and as far as genre cliches go, it actually does the “take a children’s or pop song and make it scary” one very, very well). There’s a scene early on where Hirsch’s girlfriend, visiting the morgue, says she wants to see a body, and Cox presents her with the opportunity. We only see hints of the horrors that these corpses’ visages bear, the gruesome stuff mostly hidden beneath white sheets. Øvredal has always operated best with suggestion (Trollhunter’s found footage approach is one of the few examples of that genre that really and truly works), and he plays it masterfully in that scene, building tension in ways that the intended scary scenes later on can’t equal.
Likewise, the emotional core of the story suffers from the same problem. Cox and Hirsch are actually quite good in the film; Cox is his reliably gruff yet warm self, and a lot of the sadness his character’s nursing feels honest and earned. Hirsch, on the other hand, is a little too old to be playing these characters, but he brings a charisma and, more importantly, a wide-eyed emotional earnestness to the role that I actually found pretty refreshing. This is a kid who actually loves his dad, and the father/son angst that I expected from a movie like this was nowhere to be found. They’ve very compelling while they’re actually performing the titular autopsy, and it verges on competence porn at times. The problem, though, is that the movie doesn’t know what to do with them past a certain point- it sets up all of these different and interesting paths these characters could go down and refuses to see any of them through to a satisfying conclusion, and it’s incredibly disappointing to see these characters squandered.
By the time the movie descends into outright supernatural fuckery, all of the goodwill from the solid character work and the atmospheric creepiness built up over the first two acts has dissipated. The suggestive images don’t pay off, the sexual politics of depicting two men performing an autopsy on a young woman aren’t really ever explored in any meaningful way or even acknowledged in the text, and it really starts to deflate. All that’s left is an underwhelming third act twist and an unsatisfying bummer of an ending, which is a damn shame, because if The Autopsy of Jane Doe had lived up to the promise of its premise, or even the promise of its first hour, we might be talking about a modern horror classic instead of complaining about the flaw-ridden minor work we’ve received here. It’s interesting and compelling enough to be heads and shoulders above the other January horror offerings, but we don’t know if it’ll hold up to a post-mortem discussion with friends.
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE :: Friday, February 3 to Thursday, February 9 at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St. in Cambridge, MA :: Showtimes vary by day, click here for more information :: Follow Nick Johnson on Twitter @onlysaysficus.