One of the more pleasant side effects of coming back from a long hiatus is having a backlog of movies that I’m interested in or have heard good things about to work through. I’ve got a running list of things I want to see and plenty of stuff on deck on three different streaming services, but it’s nice to approach this from the perspective of “which one do I want to do today?” instead of “well, what’s out there right now?” The downside is that a lot of these films have also had time to build up my expectations, either based on the strength of their premise or critical reception. As fair as I try to be, it’s hard when hype whatever the source- gets in the way. I mean, it isn’t the worst thing in the world when a scary movie isn’t as good as I was hoping for.
I bring this up because I had high hopes going in for The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, but even though it starts strong, it ends up whiffing, in what feels to me like a lack of confidence in what it has done up to that point.
We open on a crime scene in rural Grantham, VA, with an investigation in progress. Law enforcement and forensic personnel traipse in and out, cataloging evidence, documenting the scene. It’s done quietly and competently, without tiresome banter or much in the way of cliché. A family appears to have turned on each other (in violent fashion - guns, knives, smears and gouts of blood everywhere), and normally this would be the engine that drives the movie - why did these people kill each other? Why does it look like they were trying to break out of their own home? - but it isn’t.
Someone tells the sheriff that he needs to come down to the basement, where there’s another body, partially unearthed in the basement’s dirt floor. No identification, no prints in the system. This a problem for the sheriff, who can construct a plausible narrative for the press regarding the rest of the crime, shocking though it is in this small town. But this unidentified body, this Jane Doe, well, he needs to find out how she fits in, and quickly.
Enter Tommy and Austin Tilden, father and son, third and fourth generation coroners. In sharp contrast to the crime scene, they’re blaring rock-n-roll as they perform an autopsy. It’s nicely jarring, but doesn’t feel flippant. They have a job to do, and it’s nice to listen to music while you work. It’s the last body of the night, and Tommy’s instructing Austin in the subtleties of determining cause of death. It’s not always the obvious thing, and you need to do the whole investigation before you draw a conclusion. We get a sense of their dynamic, and there are a few balls up in the air - a tragedy they’ve been dealing with for the last couple of years, Austin wants to move away but can’t quite bring himself to leave his dad alone, Austin keeps putting work ahead of his life, that sort of thing.
And then in comes the sheriff with the Jane Doe from the crime scene. He needs a cause of death tonight so he knows what to tell the local press in the morning.
So Austin and Tommy get to work - the deceased is female, in her early twenties (appears to be in her early twenties, notes Tommy), no external signs of trauma or obvious fatal injuries. And then they open the deceased’s eyes, which are cloudy, which you’d expect from someone who had been dead for several days. Except this body doesn’t look more than a couple of hours old. Hasn’t even settled into rigor mortis yet.
And, as it transpires, her wrists and ankles have been smashed. And her tongue severed.
And that really is how it all starts off. It’s mostly quiet, and full of lots of long, still shots and sudden cuts between them, and this does a nice job of building unease. The music and sound design are largely spare, and sudden shifts between quiet and diegetic sound are used effectively to contribute to the overall tension without signposting it too obviously. It really does start strong - two people in a well-lit room discovering increasingly unsettling things about this body which resist explanation. If the film had stuck with its strengths, it could have found a way to make small details disturbing, to mine shock from discovery and tighten the screws in anticipation of an explosive payoff.
But it doesn’t have the courage of those convictions - it’s when things start to escalate and move away from that scenario that the film starts to falter, as it begins to externalize the threat in ways that feel a little muddled, both narratively and cinematically Tommy and Austin are largely believable (and nicely competent when shit starts getting weird) as people - they’re father and son and still dealing with a family tragedy of their own, and I like that it never descends into histrionics or some horrible unspeakable family secrets - it’s all at a human scale, inferred and talked around rather than exposited for the most part, which makes the conversation where it’s all laid out for us feel just that much more formulaic.
And that’s what it comes down to - there’s a real shift to the formulaic here after a certain point. Some of it is obvious early on (one particular detail in the first 15 minutes or so basically screamed “this will mean something later on,” and it did, which bummed me out), and the film does ratchet up the spooky a little too much, too fast, but not irretrievably so. After a given point, however, the filmmakers made a choice to shift the story from one about discovery to one about an external threat, and there’s very little about that external threat that doesn’t fall victim to cliché. When the focus is strictly on what the body can tell Tommy and Austin, it’s gripping. When the focus shifts to something more explicitly supernatural, it becomes a story about explanations and solutions, and there’s flickering light and smoke and rote spookiness. It all feels a little pasted in, a little predictable, a little stock, to the point that the end feels downright glib, which is wildly at variance from the tone at the film’s beginning.
Which is too bad, because the premise is not one you see every day, and it starts off with a lot of promise. If it’d had the courage to stay slow, and spare, and still, and careful, and keep everything but the autopsy itself at a human scale and not get too obvious, it would have been something really special. There’s a lot of horror to be drawn from letting a mysterious body speak for itself, but before it really had a chance to do so, someone barged in and started shouting over it.
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