Doe (2018)

A heavily bearded man (Timothy Davis) wakes up covered in newspapers on a park bench, with absolutely no idea who he is or how he got there. Eight years later, and still remembering nothing of his past save for a red-and-white-hued dream about holding a rabbit, this John Doe has become John Hutton – now best friends with Carl (Matthew St. Patrick), the detective who first handled, but never solved, his case, blissfully married to Carl’s sister Rachel (Tatyana Ali), and raising a lovely daughter Jordan (Faithe Herman). In the meantime he has also, thanks to a miraculous facility with languages, earned himself two doctorates in linguistics and an adjunct professorship at UCLA – and if mixed-race Jordan expresses fear of the monstrous men locked in cages whom people at school have mentioned to her, John promises that he will protect her. This is a harmonious, middle-class family with a good, respectable man come from nowhere to be its head – and if John’s forgotten past remains a mystery, there is ample compensation in his successful, contented present.

Of course inevitably for a film with this premise, John’s past will come back to haunt him when a history of violence buried beneath his very skin will resurface along with other men just like him, each with his own miraculous talent, and all in the end taking their own lives. As John, helped by Carl, races against the clock to learn his own life story in an attempt to stop it reaching a similarly abrupt end, the identity of Justin Foia’s film unravels as much as its protagonist’s. For no matter how sound the set-up, and no matter how interesting the ethical concepts (eugenics, behavioural modification, race relations, character engineering, corporate manipulation, the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption) it is exploring, Doe ends up rushing headlong into an excess of exposition and a confusion of increasingly preposterous plotting, with as many holes in its own narrative as there are in John’s. Combining elements from A Clockwork Orange (1971), American History X (1998), Blade Runner (1982), The Boys From Brazil (1978) and any number of amnesiac thrillers might sound like a great idea, but the answers that this film eventually finds to its own questions do not stand up to any serious scrutiny (e.g. having an affinity for language acquisition is one thing, but already knowing all these languages – supposedly by accident, and without any actual exposure to them – is quite another). In short, the ideas are big, but the execution is flawed.

© Anton Bitel