On presence superseding performance, the uncommon power of a well-selected close-up, and a body with something on its mind
The Autopsy of Jane Doe IFC Films
Director: André Øvredal
Screenplay: Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond and Michael McElhatton
Rated R / 1 hour, 26 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Now that's how you use a corpse.
For most of 90 minutes, The Autopsy of Jane Doe involves two men - father and son, master and apprentice. They are accompanied by a third person, but for a pair of coroners, this of course is not unusual. For most of 90 minutes, the unnamed body is lying on the operating table as the two men meticulously examine her - opening her mouth, peeling open her skin, fiddling with her joints and limbs. She is completely and utterly still, always. Her appearance changes only compartmentally, when one of the two men handles a specific part of her body; her position and expression never do. She's just one body among many, one part of the set decoration, one collection of clues and details and, somewhere in there, she can be reduced to one cause of death. And she is the most powerful presence in the room, and the film.
It's as simple as a close-up. Not just any close-up, but the same close-up. Head-on, shoulders up; her expression placid, her eyes cool but almost urgent. Her brown hair is arranged neatly beneath her; her skin is pale and pristine, unmarked. Over and over, director André Øvredal cuts back to her close-up, treating her much the same way he would any other character. She - the eponymous Jane Doe - doesn't move nor speak, but she does react, and reveal, and insinuate. She hints and warns and testifies.
It's an improbably crucial collaboration between director and star, Øvredal and his unspeaking ingenue, Olwen Kelly. For the two men in the story, she is merely another job - a chilled slab of meat on a table, no different than all the rest that've come through this small-town morgue; for the film itself, she's ostensibly a prop. Or is expected to be, anyway. But Øvredal's steady pattern of cutaways to her motionless face affects everything - the temperature of the room, the dynamics of the increasingly fraught situation happening within it, and the other characters' very sense of psychological equilibrium. She is not merely a persistent commentary on the action - framing the narrative in ways Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) don't quite understand (yet) - but essentially the driver of it. Jane Doe's in charge here. Jane Doe has the upper hand. Whether they know it or not, she is an active participant in this autopsy - the active participant - and the small manipulations performed on her body throughout the procedure, particularly on her face, subliminally emphasize that. The opening of her eyes, revealed to be a shimmering, cloudy grey. The slow ooze of blood out of one nostril - a deep crimson, contrasting nicely against such white skin under such bright fluorescent light.
The gap between her front teeth, permanently visible for most of the film, is more evocative than anything her co-star (and ostensible protagonist) Emile Hirsch has to offer. Kelly, in her second film role, makes for a striking presence - with huge assists from the makeup and editing departments. A lot of her impact is just placement within scenes and between shots - context clues that change our reactions to things, our understanding of what the film is doing, and where it's going. There's nothing overly severe about her appearances - no clanging music or sound effect that draws attention. Sometimes she's punctuating an exchange. Sometimes she's emphasizing or foreshadowing a moment. Or filling the space of a pregnant pause. And, sometimes, she's just reminding us that she's there - really there, not just a body lying on a table.
It's the nature of the genre that we keep expecting something else to happen with her. That we expect her to get up, walk around, get hands-on with the havoc she's otherwise already creating by her presence alone. And the movie makes sure to knowingly tease this possibility, staging a conversation in which Tommy* explains the old-fashioned origins behind his habit of tying a small bell to the ankles of his cadavers. "I'm a bit of a traditionalist." Sure you are, Tommy.
* Look, don't blame me for a movie that has an adult male who still goes by the name "Tommy" instead of Tom. I'm just the messenger. You think Brian Cox wants to be a Tommy? Of course he doesn't. But the man's a professional.
Even as it struggles to explain and contextualize the specifics of what's being unwrapped (some of Hirsch's dialogue in particular just artlessly thunks out information), Autopsy's approach to genre is more interesting than simply a dead girl that goes full zombie. Jane Doe is not just a curious case but an outright contradiction, her angelic appearance belying much more horrifying realities - the most important invocation of the film's internal vs. external thematic structure. As appearances ago, she seems to be in immaculate shape, all things considered. As it lies under the lights, her body shows no visible trauma. There are no cuts, wounds or markings. There is no clear cause of death. And yet, Timmy and Austin discover, under-the-surface tells a different story altogether. Blackened lungs. Wrists and ankles broken. Tongue crudely cut out. And that's not the strangest of it.
Of course, that kind of physical damage in a movie is never incidental, and the film's interests lie in the interrogation of its source - and the penance that must be paid, the retribution that must be delivered, for it. The scenario we begin with, innocuous as it seems, is not incidental, either. Two men put in charge of a woman's body - or soul, or both. As she unassumingly rests there on that table, we might be reminded of Rorschach's declaration in Alan Moore's Watchmen: "None of you understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me." The radio newscaster, in the moments just after the boys have begun to realize there's something off about this body, puts it succinctly, in the film's most deliciously playful moment: "This is not a storm you want to get caught up in ... One thing's for sure: You're not going anywhere."
They should not have underestimated her. Nevertheless...