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Death and Your Mom

Thos. West

André Øvredal, dir.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe





Where André Øvredal’s previous movie, 2010’s Norwegian Trollhunter (or Trolljegeren), was topographically extensive, his English-language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, is a voyage into the interior. Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, father-and-son forensic pathologists, of all things, are given a body. In the movie’s first reel, it had been found in suspicious circumstances; over the following hour, Hirsch and Cox will photograph, palpate, manipulate it; break its ribs, cut it open, partially skin it; will, eventually, attempt to set it alight. This body is played by the unknown Olwen Kelly, who spends the entire movie naked, but is still the largest female role, notwithstanding her perhaps explicable lack of lines.

Given the above summary, it will be of little surprise that the place of gender in the movie is deeply problematic. Hirsch and Cox’s names are on the poster. Kelly’s is not. Interestingly, almost everyone interviewed about it has good things to say about her performance; no-one seems to have thought Kelly worth talking to about it. We should point out here that the unconscious, mute Doe is the film’s villain. As our intrepid heroes get to work on her, weird shit starts happening: insects emerge from the otherwise well-preserved body; lights flicker; spooky songs play on the radio; a container of blood, unattended, somehow overflows; an unknown party kills the family pet (“Stanley was a pain in the ass … but he was your mother’s. One of the few things of hers I had left.” “Yeah, I miss her too.” “Right. Let’s keep going.”) Father and son rationalise and hypothesise for an improbably long period of time: eventually, things escalate to the point that they find themselves sheltering from the re-animated corpses of their other clients in the freight elevator.

To note at this point that the film does not pass the Bechdel test would be perhaps to state the obvious. More interesting is that it shares at least a rotational symmetry with Bechdel’s Fun Home. As with Fun Home, the Gothic trope and topos of house-as-family is deployed in a massively determined fashion. This particular house has an unassuming exterior in Folk Victorian and a basement which, perhaps inevitably, seems more extensive than the house itelf, and which we are lovingly shown around by the camera for a full minute before we encounter the leads. Too, as in Bechdel’s book, our parent-child leads are co-habiting uneasily in the gap left by the suicide of the other parent—though there the family were morticians, not forensic psychologists. That this death was a suicide is rather bathetically revealed to the audience as, sheltering, as I’ve said, from re-animated corpses, as I’ve said, in the freight elevator, father and son take a moment to reminisce:

“All this. It’s my fault.”

“You couldn’t have known.”

“Yeah? That’s what everyone told me … about your mom.”

Cox is also talking about the fact that he’s just sort-of accidentally killed Hirsch’s girlfriend (long story), but the film doesn’t dwell on this: has little time, by this point, for constructing these two dudes as anything but victims, on the one hand, of the body they’re carving up; of the mysteries of female psychology, on the other. Throughout the second part of the film, our dynamic duo are attempting to decode a fragment of writing they find in Doe’s stomach. They realise that when folded back on itself it reads LVTCUS XXXXVII, keying the Bible verse instructing the reader not to suffer a witch, etc.; I don’t understand why if you’re leaving a message inside the stomach of someone you killed you’d bother finding ways to obscure its meaning, but it takes all sorts. On this evidence, following some initial trouble with the premise that witches are real — “Witches are a myth.” “You can’t! keep! denying” — they conclude that, one, Doe was tortured to death on suspicion of being a witch; two, somehow this process of torture invested her with malevolent witch powers, rendering her some kind of supernatural agent upon them/men/the patriarchy. At this point we realise the movie deploys its torque around the same axle as 2015’s The Witch, viz.: we all know the discourse of the witch trials leaned on religiosity for an arbitrary and cruel suppression of female knowledge and power — but what if witches were also, like, an actual thing?

Both films are, charitably, engaged in some kind of relevant-to-our-times attempt at social commentary. Jane Doe is markedly less tedious than The Witch but thematically more ham-fisted: the focus on the unknowable body of Doe and the unknowable psyche of the dead mother renders it, ultimately and inevitably, a story about how unknowable women are to male investigation, man. Why, for all their analysis, have neither father nor son managed to discover the fact that they’re both insufferable douches? Neither is particularly interesting, nor, seemingly, able to engage with the other on any genuine level, much less with any character outside the family unit: Hirsch’s girlfriend is despatched mid-film with less ceremony than is allotted his dead mom’s cat. Both Hirsch and Cox declare the B-movie schtick of the script with less relish than would salvage their characters, and in the end the silent Kelly manages to out-act them thoroughly. In the film’s final shot, Doe’s toe twitching as she’s ferried across county lines, the viewer can hardly help but root for her.


Thos. West [1] studied at Oxford and elsewhere. He currently lives and works in Seoul.