2016 was a pinnacle year for modern horror films. You had The Witch, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Don’t Breathe, The Neon Demon, etc. All of these films were highly original and added a lot of fresh blood to a genre once thought to be on its lasts legs. At the tail end of the year, I started hearing about a film that was playing exclusivity at festivals, entitled The Autopsy of Jane Doe. With director André Øvredal, who directed the INCREDIBLY underrated found footage gem of Troll Hunters, at the helm, plus Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox as the lead co-stars, this one film flew heavily under my radar, unfortunately, and lost in the Oscar season mess. Thankfully, the Brattle happened to be showing it this week, and I had the chance to check this film out, primarily because of the reviews, and especially horror writer Stephen King’s high praise for it. Maybe it was my high expectations after the praise, or the unrealistic goals I wanted from this film after the slew of phenomenal horror films from the last year, but I was a tad disappointed in the final product. However, with its original ideas, it’s a film I highly admire and is worth the viewing.
Hirsch and Cox star as father/son business partners who work at a family-run morgue together. Their job is to go through bodies upon bodies, discovering motives and cause of deaths of these victims. One night, though, as Austin (Hirsch) is preparing to go out and close up for the night, the body of a Jane Doe (a woman who cannot be identified or who’s identity is disclosed) is brought to him and his father Tommy (Cox) by the Sheriff (Roose Bolton himself, Michael McElhatton). With only a night to discover the cause of death for the sheriff and the county they live in, Austin and Tommy both work thoroughly to dig deeper into the motive of what happened to this Jane Doe. All the while, weird and strange things start to occur in the morgue. That is all I’ll give away, as the rest is really fun to watch unravel if you go in blind without knowing what is going to happen. Luckily, I knew nothing about it outside of the actors and the director, so that really helped my enjoyment of this film.
Let me just start by saying that director André Øvredal really knows how to expertly craft an excellent build up of suspense and set up. From the first scene, the introduction of the characters and their interactions let you know right away their current relationship; even if the set up is quick, it makes their interactions in the film even more believable. They even set up solid past structures with these characters that turn up as later themes which progress the emotional story that draws these characters fully. Nothing about the writing of the characters or the acting is contrived or made up, which is the strongest element of the film. I’d watch again just for Hirsch and Cox’s back-and-forth dialogue, it’s just so entertaining. Along with this, Øvredal’s camerawork and direction is phenomenal. The tight corridors and the dim lighting really add a brooding sense of atmosphere to this picture, and even just thinking about the setting itself gives me chills.
With all this fantastic set-up, it’s just disappointing that the pay off is not as great as I hoped. What should have been a straight-up psychological horror film turns into a complete hodgepodge of themes that never really hits the mark. Unfortunately, the last 30 minutes falls into the completely overused jump scares, which are more confusing than scary, and this really strange and utterly nonsensical mythology that they add onto the story for who knows what reason. It really takes away from the mystery of the first hour and the greatness of the characters, as they throw them into this weird horror film that feels more aligned with an entry in the Silent Hill or Rings movie franchises than a well crafted horror story. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are so good, though, that they make these sequences worth it to watch, and really are the saving grace near the end.
Even with the negative aspects of Jane Doe, I still think horror buffs should see this film just for the sheer originality of the whole thing. André Øvredal really crafted something super unique here, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store next. Even if the last 30 minutes did nothing for me, it’s still creative and original, something that can’t be said for most major Hollywood films. So even if I didn’t “love” Jane Doe, it’s worth noting that I’ll support these kind of films to the death. Side note: as someone who has been vigorously playing Resident Evil 7, Jane Doe oddly works as a cool extension; the two are visually similar, so that was pretty cool to see!
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
dir. André Øvredal
Screens through Thursday, 2/9 @ Brattle Theatre – click here for showtimes and ticket info