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 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 Jane Doe, 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, 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.