The bond between a father and son is key to the development of a man’s life. A father can be a teacher, friend, mentor, structure, a bastard and a compass. When the son decides to leave and find his own path, it brings pride, drama and a realistic tension that creates compelling storytelling. One of the weaving themes of this year’s FANTASTIC FEST film programming has been within the relationship dynamic of fathers and sons in a variety of dark, twisted and thrilling horror narratives. Films like the THE GREASY STRANGLER, MISS PEREGRINS HOME FOR THE PECULIAR and one of the best films of this festival, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, all deal with such themes. Starring Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, two of the most well respected and true assets to their craft, this profile of family drama, supernatural visual storytelling and growing isolation is laid out before us by Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal (TROLLHUNTER).
Making his first feature in six years, Ovredal came to the United States and surprised many who were attending with the premiere of his English-language debut THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is a Pandora’s box that sits in the middle of a well-crafted tale of the coming of age and bond of father and son. It begins with a story about a darkness that appears in a private family morgue in a small town. Laid on a foundation of tradition, a mysterious body is dropped off one night by local law enforcement with many questions shrouding the investigation and answers needed. Discovering the body semi-buried at a crime scene, Sheriff Shelton (Michael McElhatton) brings the Jane Doe body to the Tilden House, which has been around for nearly a century. This incredibly designed and stylish time capsule of a morgue/lab returns the viewer to the days of classic horror relationships, with sets and storytelling full of when monsters and mad science were in those dark corners of our minds.
The head coroner and father Tommy (Cox) and his assistant and son Austin (Hirsch) reluctantly accept the body of a young woman who from the outside seems almost untouched but contains characteristics that slowly reveal the possibility of terrible things that may have gone on prior to her body’s arrival. Tommy decides he will take on the case to help his friend Sheldon out in this tight spot. Austin and his girlfriend start to leave on a date but the duty as a son and assistant make his head and obligation come before his heart. As they duo begin the autopsy, the more traditional process of Tommy follows the procedures his family had taught him for decades while the young Austin looks at the larger picture with this case taking it from a more investigative turn. Tapping into not only the history of our country’s sins but the modern intelligence and discovery of medical/forensics television, we see the script to screen transition filled with intrigue, portioned shots and substance rather than shallow ideas.
As Tilden’s work on the autopsy, a storm is brewing above the bunker morgue with the power, old fashioned radio and equipment buzzing, crackling and creating a haunting atmosphere. Attempting to stay focused on the case and the growing mystery surrounding the Jane Doe, they discover there is much more than meets the eye with this woman’s body both on the surface and below. This ties into the questions of where she came from, what has happened to her and what dark purpose does Jane Doe perhaps serve? Each moment that follows falls deeper into the darkness as well as into the struggle that both Austin and Tommy share as the next chapter in Austin’s life comes before Tony. Assembling the puzzle piece by piece, the viewer finds out that horror is timeless and that even with modernized procedures and explanation, the sins of the past can affect anyone who dares delve deep inside Pandora’s box.
I can’t think of more well-rounded and tense film on the film festival circuit, as THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE shows the versatility and overall understanding of filmmaking as a puzzle that pays the viewer a large amount of respect. It’s an old school horror film that takes the simplest of tools and troupes and brings them to life with a nervous energy that keeps you on edge. A game of cat and mouse if you will as it offers the aspect of figuring out the puzzle and yet still twisting you with startling sound, punctuational jumps and reactionary direction that makes pay attention. With a running time of nearly 100 minutes, no shot, minute or word is wasted as the dialogue and performances that transpire between Hirsch and Cox are master character profiles that will be remembered for years. Cox’s versatility and believability as a father, coroner and inquisitor probing deeper for truth even if he should not is yet another testament to the actor’s talented abilities.
The meat of the narrative comes from their obsession that grows with each moment, connecting with the audience and daring them to continue as well as discover the whole picture with each sound, visual and glance between Tommy, Austin and Jane Doe. The craftsmanship of shot selection, emoting, facial expression and movement captured by cinematographer Roman Osin, written by Ian B. Goldberg & Richard Naing and directed by Ovredal is education in cultivating depth in horror storytelling. Each act of the film acts offers a different window leading you to the final macabre wave of timeless and tragic choices that haunt us over the centuries.
The practical FX work as well as the prosthetic and practical work in the different stages of the film starts so simple and evolves into a true tool of terror. From the way the corpse is shot, to the positioning and patience to take an inanimate canvas, tweak it so with each shot and with each glance from Austin to Tony we go deeper into her mind and heart. This goes as well for the set design and understanding of every angle, room, dark corner, restriction, escape and hallway that in such a micro space seems to be a never ending underworld of rooms and possibilities. Each item, empty space and truly traditional tools all work to solve the puzzle seems to have a function and in no way is any of it wasted in its meaning or movement. Even as the film moves into the third act and the enclosure takes a fully realized life of its own, the confusion and brewing chaos never loses its pace or focus on what the end game is with the characters. These characters again are embodied to perfection by Hirsch and Cox, whose chemistry on screen raises this film to another level. The awkward and tense humor found in movements, looks and simple yet pointed dialogue involving the understanding of duty and family love. The mental break down and pain that festers within the film and what it consumes are shown with precision by two of the best talents in film today.
The relationships and the simplicity of THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE are so satisfying and strong, with the pace of each act, the dread that is slowly building as well as the performances both alive and dead are just so true to understanding that horror is a fluid, emotional experience. With so much more for you fans to discover and details to give, this film like this review only scratches the surface.