Director: André Øvredal
Writer: Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing
Cinematographer: Roman Osin
Producer: Fred Berger, Eric Garcia, Ben Pugh, and Rory Aitken
by Jon Cvack
Seeing the film starred Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, I avoided reading anything else. The title was obvious enough. The story opens on a crime scene where the police have dug up a beautiful young woman in pristine condition; her skin fair and nearly glowing without a mark on her body. With the cop needing immediate information, he takes the body to a local coroner.
We meet Austin and his father Tommy as they complete the autopsy on the last patient of the night; listening to some classic rock on the radio and grooving along with the work. Tommy sends Austin off early to go meet up with a girl he’s been seeing named Emma (Ophelia Lovibond). As he’s about to leave the sheriff rolls up with the body and explains the urgency of having the cause of death determined by morning. Emma arrives, but feeling guilty, Austin asks if they can meet up later so that his father doesn’t have to work alone.
The two start the autopsy, immediately realizing that the body has no signs of trauma except for her wrists and ankles being shattered and her tongue having been cut out. She’s also missing a molar. They open up the body, snapping the rib cage open and discovering black lungs and that her organs have countless amounts of cuts and scar tissue, as though sliced. They later peel her skin away to discover black magic scripture written across the insides.
Note is how the filmmakers portray Jane Doe for the film’s duration (played by Olwen Kelly) as a beautiful woman who lies naked on the table. It appears a subtle comment on how women are portrayed in film; that so long as they’re attractive and naked it doesn’t matter whether they speak or lie dormant. It is an object for us to look at. It is the Kuleshov effect; as each subsequent episode occurs we cut back to her neutral face which communicates as much as the most popular women in horror films.
During their initial autopsy, the radio shifts into an old song from the 1920s; later shifting to local news where the reporter says that storms are coming in with a risk of flooding.
The set up is perfect, providing exactly what you desire from a horror film. A rainy night. Some people alone in a creepy place dealing with a mysterious object which seems to be involved with forces wanting to kill them; whether aliens like in The Thing, or a perfect sphere from Sphere, or a handful of strangers at a haunted mansion like House on Haunted Hill. The story essentially uncovers a question - why is this happening and how is the object involved?
Where most fail is in resolving the question satisfactorily. At a ratio of how good a movie is compared to its ending, Identity is unmatched. It has the most disappointing ending of all time. It was all a psychotic fantasy, just an inch above it was all a dream. Shutter Island is a close second, with a first third that is absolutely flawless storytelling, fading in the second act, and then crashing hard in the third; it too was all a psychotic man’s fantasy. Check out my thoughts on Shutter Island (2010 for more details, but basically my main issue is that both dreams or hallucinations permit anything; drifting into the realm of surrealism where the experience is limitless in logic. There is no foundation. Any image could be created because none of the images are real. To me, cinema - and literature - is about connecting with a universal truth. It’s similar to watching a film completely in someone’s POV; it feels limited, when instead a more macro view could have made it better. It was all a dream/fantasy/psychotic episode is lazy writing; it’s what you do when you’ve painted yourself into a corner.
The film’s that get it right provide that uncanny sensibility throughout the story. Things are getting weirder and weirder - or better - scarier and scarier and we do not know why. The Village (2004) is an example where the answer, while logical to a degree, was simply unsatisfying.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe combines a mysteriously dead body who seems to be contributing to a supernatural presence determined to kill Austin and Tommy. The movie is a tight 85 minutes, moving from scene to scene with momentum and yet with deliberation. The filmmakers and actors convey a respect and comprehension of the medical terms rather than just reciting and pasting them down. It levels out their incredible discoveries; making you wonder if it was somehow a serial killer; honestly wondering if it was simply person that burned her lungs, cut up her organs, broke her ankles and wrists, cut out her tongue, and tattoo the inside of her chest skin all without leaving a mark on the rest of the body. That is, until the other bodies in the morgue disappear and rise up to kill them.
Like a perfect shift in a jazz band, we comprehend what’s going on just as Tommy does; realizing that Jane Doe is something evil and must be destroyed; that she very well is a witch that was tortured to death and whose spirit has lived on. Tommy attempts to burn her alive and we witness the resistance; causing the destruction to become all the more powerful.
After one of the bodies seems to attack them at the door, they run for the elevator. The doors shut and their attacked and Tommy swings to kill the creature; catching them in the head. The doors open and they see it was Emma. A twist so simple and yet unexpectedly perfect.
The concluding deaths are equally terrifying; demonstrating that the power isn’t in her to kill Tommy and Austin so much as make them kill the other or self; to scare them into death. Her torture becomes their mental torture. It shows the way hallucinations can work; it is not from their perspective, it is something happening to them. It is an amazing horror film.
BELOW: Avoided reading or watching any trailers and had no idea where this was going; what a scene
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