Wednesday 10 January 2018

We Don't Go Back #75: The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

There have been a couple of occasions where the act of fitting a film into my series has been in itself a betrayal of a plot twist, a handing over of secrets. Where the tropes of folk horror are part of a reveal. And in order even to talk about them, I am explaining the ending. So tread carefully. I think The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a strong enough film to be worth a look with its twists revealed, but nonetheless I'll be giving things away.

You can find The Autopsy of Jane Doe on UK (and I think US) Netflix right now. It is well worth looking up. You need a strong stomach though.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a very simple horror film, at least in structure. Somewhere in the East Coast of the USA, a house is found, silent, full of corpses; in the basement, the police find, half-buried, the body of a young woman, serene of expression, naked. A Jane Doe. The police take her to the local mortuary, where the state coroner, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) are packing up for the night. Everyone wants answers, the Sheriff (Michael McElhatton) says. I need to know what happened to this Jane Doe tonight, he says.

It's not the first time they've pulled a late shift, that's part of the job. You see everyday tensions, deft snatches of dialogue through which you can see glimpses of real people's lives, wishes, frustrations. Austin's girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) wants him to quit, and there's a sense of not again with her about his staying late to help his dad, even when he doesn't have to; Austin feels obligated, though.

These men love each other like a father and son should. Their relationship is healthy and imperfect. Tommy knows his game; Austin knows it too, but not as well as Tommy.

They set about opening up the Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly, lying very still). The more they open her up, the more mystifying and strange and distressing are the circumstances of her body, the more distant their understanding of the cause of death.

The first act of the film works like a very gory procedural, and the things that Tommy and Austin find inside her are horribly disturbing.
You see parts of the paraphernalia of the morgue, revealed quite naturally as they go – right at the beginning, Emma gains access to the morgue, and it's her first time down here, and it allows a nicely structured "what does this thing do?" scene which advances the plot and helps you to understand not only the mortuary, but its workers. One of the games of the film then, and this is often the business of a horror film, is to get you guessing as to which of their tools and customs will return in ghastly form later, when the haunting has begun.

Of course the haunting begins. A body as inexplicable and occult as this Jane Doe – and it's occult in the sense of carrying secrets just as much as it is in a magical sense – has to be haunted, or is in fact a haunting itself. Tommy and Austin become trapped in the morgue, besieged by the trappings of death, but the film keeps offering grounds for doubt as to how much of this is substantial. It's like their environment itself is haunting them.

I keep talking about hauntology, and I'm often a bit vague about the term, but essentially hauntology is an expression of the sense that history haunts us, that the unresolved evils and pains of the past are waiting to visit themselves on us. I suppose that there is a sense that history itself carries traumas which might impose themselves upon us like flashbacks should we dig them up. The corpse in the film has a specific history, and although silent and still, it makes its rage known. Tommy and Austin are not the first to be subject to its haunting. Their story, told using the cinematic grammar of the procedural, is that of the detective (and the coroner in films and TV is often exactly that). They find the truth. But here is where The Autopsy of Jane Doe breaks with the procedural as a genre. In a procedural detective story, where, very simply, we learn the clues that solve the mystery at the same pace as the protagonist, the finding of the truth is cathartic. The discovery of the mystery is the ending or the doorway to the ending. The solution of a procedural story, quite simply, solves things.
But while the mystery of this Jane Doe's origin can be solved, the problem she signifies can't. The unidentified corpse, who is, notwithstanding all that we learn about what she represents, never named, lies there as a sign of a past evil, a mistake of human belief. If she had a name, she'd be one story, a single person. But because she has no name, she is a representative, in some ways a proxy for all the victims of the atrocity that made her.

She is ineffaceable, both literally (when things get hairy, and the Tildens try to destroy the body, to their horror they can't) and exactly in the way that the sins of our history are ineffaceable. She lies there, a silent accusation. And she's unforgiving. You can't wipe away the sins of history. Even if it wasn't a quintessentially folk horror bit of history that she references, the way in which she stands for a chapter of American history that is beyond resolution makes this story peak hauntology.

More than one review I've seen of The Autopsy of Jane Doe has suggested that the film's final act is chaotic and rushed, and doesn't pay off the set up of the first part. I don't think that's true. It's a shame that the realisation of the Jane Doe's nature is somewhat clunky, but it's about the only poorly written dialogue in an otherwise extraordinarily well written film. On the whole the film pays off what it sets up.

The film avoids doing a lot of obvious things for the sake of cheap scares (and that includes the most obvious thing that you can think of).

The very fact that the body has no name makes the story about something wider, right from the beginning. The goriest, most physically uncomfortable parts of the film are during the autopsy scenes, while the hauntings are fleeting and often inconclusive. While gore and death are present throughout, the real villain is bloody history, reaching from the past to assault the present.

My Patreon supporters got to see this last week! To support my work and read early, please consider donating. No donation too small.