Genre movies get a bad rap. Oh, sure, we have outfits like Red Letter Media, Birth.Movies.Death and various others to plumb the genre movie depths and pull out some good stuff to show to the rest of us, but usually when a movie wears its premise on its sleeve, people scoff at it for being just that. People have an idea about the movies being grand, having sweeping themes and performances, as if every movie has to be, “The Godfather” or something, and such a viewpoint limits both the viewer and the creative/business types who make the movies possible. “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”, directed by André Øvredal and written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, signals to everyone who doesn’t spend their time plumbing the depths of cinema for depravity and scares that it isn’t for them, centering on little more than the dissection of an unidentified female body by a father-son team at a morgue. But in the case of this movie, that is a very, very good thing…until towards the end, and not necessarily because of plot reasons (though those do crop up as one discusses this movie) but because of thematic reasons. Confused? Well, let me explain.
So the premise is…well, exactly what the title says it is. A father and a son run a morgue and spend days dissecting bodies to find medical causes of death. Before that, however, there is an sequence of a bizarre and bloody crime scene where the titular corpse is found in a shallow grave. Said corpse is brought to the morgue, the two begin to dissect her and…well, that’s where the ghoulish fun begins. What’s refreshing about the movie (at first) is how the movie is able to get under your skin without being particularly gory. Sequences of the corpse being dissected are made with detached cinematography by Roman Osin while wince-inducing sound design and chilling music plays at just the right moments. There can be moments when it leans a little too heavily on that, however. The movie brings enough scares by virtue of being almost entirely confined to one setting, with effective lighting and a great central performance between Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox. Sometimes, however, it’s as if the moviemakers don’t trust their own premise enough to just let those things speak on their own terms.
So, yes, while the music and sound design are good, they do get used for typical jump scares and the like. Thankfully, the central premise of Jane Doe’s corpse hiding some deadly secrets is pulled off with aplomb, even with exposition-filled dialogue between Brain Cox and Emile Hirsch. Brain Cox in particular brings a potent mix of melancholy, bitterness and wit to proceedings that start out banal and then turn absolutely batshit. As his character gets more wise about what’s going on, with some help from Emile Hirsch, he connects the dots and practically explains to the audience in real time just what the deal is…and you don’t mind that, simply because Cox is so believable as a weathered man whose profession deals with facing Death itself that you don’t mind that the guy practically figures stuff out on the fly, with an eclectic book collection right by his dissecting tools that JUST SO HAPPENS to have the clues and hints needed for the him and his son to figure what the fuck is going on as things go supernatural.
And that, unfortunately, brings us to the big flaw: the movie punches above its weight and winds up hitting itself in the process. I’m all for genre movies branching out a bit and twisting the audience’s expectations, but one can’t help but bring up issues with the plot as it does so. For example: in an attempt to humanize Cox’s character, he gives a monologue about his dead wife inside of an elevator after the death of a major character, and it feels contrived. Cox already does a good job being himself and the movie already gives us plenty of hints about the family dynamic at the center of the film, so why spell it out to us like this? And then there are the themes that come into play as the story goes on, which have the movie unearth a bit of the ugly, misogynistic history of the United States…and then it does nothing with it, just a stepping stone for supernatural goings-on and a series of plot twists that go into some psychological territory. With a premise as constrained and economical as this, it’s bound to fall apart as it goes on, and people who think that, say, “The Witch” is an overrated movie that shamefully mines said misogynistic history for scares without grace or outright condemnation of said history will likely find themselves annoyed with what this movie does.
But the good parts of this movie…holy shit. The best parts of this movie made me squirm and left me in a sort of existential panic about the way the human body works. There’s a sequence set to cheery rock music of Cox and Hirsch dissecting the charred corpse of a man, followed by a scene where the two discuss their work to determine the man’s cause of death. It turns out that the man died not from the fire, but from an earlier head injury as indicated by a part deep inside his skull. Cox then opines that some bodies have secrets that we don’t know about until we expire and have people like him to figure out. I mean, just think of it: we walk, ride, sleep, eat and do whatever with the faith that our bodies work and will keep working…until they don’t. The concept of death is impossible to grasp, and yet it confronts us every day, leaving people like the father and son of the morgue to at least piece together how we died. When the movie is just about that and mysteries about why it occurs, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” approaches a level of being great, and the stuff after that is no slouch either even with the genre-bending weirdness. But, as it is, it’s a spine-tingling genre effort that one wishes finished as strong as it opens…or, at least, didn’t try to be more than what it actually is.
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