The Autopsy of Jane Doe
2017, R, 86 min. Directed by André Øvredal. Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 13, 2017
As consumers of fiction, we’ve become used to the concept of unreliable narrators, but what to make of the unreliable cadaver we’re faced with in The Autopsy of Jane Doe? This movie’s unidentified corpse does not obey the laws of human anatomy, nor does it give up the secrets of its origin without a fight – a big, gory, spooky fight. What’s more, the body’s pristine outer surface belies the wreckage within. The only way for the coroners to get Jane Doe to spill her guts is, um, to spill her guts postmortem.
Strange things start to occur shortly after Jane Doe’s body is brought to the Tilden Morgue and Crematorium after-hours by the local sheriff (McElhatton) after it has been discovered half-buried in the basement of a home where he’s trying to solve the mystery of the grisly murders of its residents. With a rush order on the autopsy, coroner Tommy Tilden (Cox) begins the job, assisted by his son Austin (Hirsch), who has postponed a date to stick around and help his dad. Anomalous details about the corpse’s physiology accumulate as the examination progresses, each discovery icky and inexplicable. Then weird events begin to take place, many of them coinciding with shock cuts and scares. And, of course, a major storm is brewing outside. ”This is not a storm you want to get caught in,” advises the deejay before the radio waves are overtaken by some external force. Soon thereafter, the lights and electricity go out, but that may be the work of the witchy beauty on the slab rather than the rainstorm.
Essentially a chamber piece for Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch (and Olwen Kelly, who plays the lifeless Jane Doe), the film benefits from the actors’ skills and their believable father/son rapport. Lurking in the background of the story is the death of their depressed wife and mother two years earlier, a death her husband Tommy regrets being unable to forestall, and a sin he now fears is being visited upon his son. This English-language debut by André Øverdal, the Norwegian director of the cult film Trollhunter, is a taut and economical horror film, making the most of the story’s cavernous negative space and prosthetic guts. The film’s sound design by Christian Conrad mixes original music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans with diegetic sound effects to create a creepily textured track that enhances what’s seen onscreen. The story by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing is a bit wanting in terms of plausibility and hard answers. But as Austin exclaims midway through The Autopsy of Jane Doe, “We are way past possible.” Take note before slicing in.