Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Films of 2016: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

[Beware of Spoilers]

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is an exceedingly well-made horror film from director Andre Ovredal, the talent behind one of the greatest found-footage horror movies of the last several years: Trollhunter (2010).

Autopsy of Jane Doe is a completely different kind of horror film, but one that is quite effective in its own way.

In some under-the-surface fashion, The Autopsy of Jane Doe reads as a perfect reflection of our current age. On a broad level it concerns people of reason who attempt to puzzle through a problem scientifically, only to find that reality isn’t necessarily as reasonable or rational as they had believed. 

The nightmarish-ness of the film arises from the slow-dawning realization by the central figures -- father-son coroners -- that the laws of science, and their experiences don’t really apply to their current situation. 

They are in unknown territory.

The film’s opening scenes are particularly strong, as we come to understand the modus operandi of these protagonists. We see them undertake an autopsy, bringing all their training, knowledge, experience and even intuition to bear. They are competent, smart, and likeable. They handle their job in a professional, enlightened manner.

But as the film-long autopsy continues, inexplicable events occur, reason is turned on its head, and terror grows.  Maybe “grows” isn’t the right term.  Terror “spreads.”

As rational humans, much like the lead characters, we assume the daylight rules of reality will always hold, but in this film, they don’t old. They are shed.  Something old and terrifying controls the levers of reality in a fashion beyond scientific comprehension.

Unfortunately, the last act of the film -- though punctuated by well-wrought jump scares -- doesn’t quite come off as successfully as the great set-up suggests it should. Some of the final act exposition transmits as overly far-fetched, and the film’s treatment of the father and son is not likely to please those who have invested strongly in them, and their approach to solving a problem.

Still, by that point, the film is barreling forward (and bloodily) on its own momentum.

“It looks like they were trying to break out.”

At a crime scene in Brantham, Virginia, a bloody crime scene baffles the police. In particular, one woman, a “Jane Doe” (Olwen Kelly) is discovered half-buried in the basement, nude, far away from the other victims.

In an effort to learn more about what happened to her, the police transport the corpse of Jane Doe to The Tilden Morgue and Crematorium, home of local medical examiner, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son, a certified medical technician, Austin (Emile Hirsch). Tommy is a hard man to like, and still in mourning over the death of his wife.  He sees his job as strictly to determine a “cause of death” and nothing more.  He doesn’t want to get into speculation or storytelling. Instead, he believes the condition of the corpse will reveal everything he should know.  What is real is only what he can observe and catalog.

Austin, meanwhile, is more imaginative. He also has a secret, which he shares with his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond). Specifically, he doesn’t wish to take over the family business.

As tension grows between Austin and Tommy, they conduct a lengthy autopsy of Jane Doe during a tumultuous storm.  They soon begin to encounter troubling indicators about the condition of the corpse. 

As their autopsy of Jane Doe continues, confusion turns to terror as the two men realize that science can’t tell them the true story of the woman they are examining.

“Everybody has a secret. Some people are better at hiding them.”

Lately, I’ve very much enjoyed the horror genre’s “return to basics” approach in recent films. By that, I mean that films like The Monster (2016) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) limit themselves in terms of the number of characters and settings. With few characters to keep track of, and few locations to cut from, these films concentrate on nurturing a scintillating sense of anxiety and suspense. They can fully excavate the details of one place -- and one time (like a forest road, or a crematorium during a storm) -- as well as focus strongly on the foibles and contradictions of the main characters.

The first hour of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is remarkable in the manner that it introduces Austin and Tommy, and explains the basic routine of the crematorium/morgue. For instance, we learn that Tommy ties bells to the feet of the corpses he houses, just in case someone isn’t really dead.

You can bet that this little strange fact will have significance later on, and it does.

And then, when the autopsy starts, we watch as Tommy takes the lead, examining the body, and Austin writes important data down on a blackboard. Throughout these sequences, the film is crisply edited, and the movie transmits as both smart and unsettling.  Smart, because Tommy and Austin debate how to handle their work, and unsettling because the movie focuses on something universal: the treatment of a human body by the “death” industry, following death.  We witness how Tommy and Austin go about their job, and handle their “guests.” We see them move bodies, cut bodies, house bodies, and otherwise handle those who were once like us; those who once had life.

This material is gruesome, and yet handled in a clinical fashion so that it appears more intriguing than disgusting.  Accordingly, The Autopsy of Jane Doe exists in this “ghoulish” place where the audience is both fascinated and repelled by what it sees.  You want to turn away, and you want to see what happens next, simultaneously.

To my surprise, the movie also features a very effective avatar for terror. Olwen Kelly plays “Jane Doe,” the central corpse. At first the audience regards her with fascination, wondering what could have happened to such a beautiful young woman, and why she shows no markings of violence.

As the movie continues, however, the motionless body becomes a mystery, and finally, a well-developed character. She doesn’t move, breathe, or see anything (through her blind white eyes…) and yet there is a feeling that she controls everything. She is a powerful presence.  She is like a juggernaut, one who could “activate” at any point, and after some time, you will find her constant presence in frame (often in the background) grow from unsettling to downright terrifying.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe succeeds because it features compelling characters and a compelling central mystery, too, but it is the bizarre nightmare quality of the film that most fascinates me. I was reminded a bit of classic horror films such as The Wicker Man (1973), wherein a man of distinct beliefs and rules investigates a mystery that, finally, involves the utterly irrational.  That’s the journey that Tommy takes in the film.  He goes from a position of “certainty” about his job, to a position where knowledge and certainty can’t protect him.  Instead, the irrational threatens to consume him, and his son.

I do feel that this is a very strong reflection of our current national mood. Many people are grappling, right now, with a simple hypothesis: what does it mean that established methodologies for predicting events and behavior (for example, polling) fail so egregiously?

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is about the fear of the rational man (or woman) that logic, science, facts, data and all the evidence at hand will prove not to be useful in understanding the word, or each other. It is about the fear of that man (or woman) as he starts to let into his thinking -- perhaps for the first time -- the possibility of something happening beyond all understanding and explaining.

My post-mortem on The Autopsy of Jane Doe would go something like this: The film features real life horror (showing us the process a body goes through in an autopsy), and existential, cerebral horror, too, in its depiction of a supernatural threat beyond the world of reason. The film’s strong characters, and the focus on one setting also contribute to the overall success of the movie. Even the film’s problems (mostly in the last act), don’t take away from the overall tenor of terror.

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