Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) owns a morgue in some small county in the USA. He’s also the local coroner, clearly a diligent and experienced one, working together with his son Austin (Emile Hirsch), who is staying on as his dad’s assistant more because he can’t bring himself to leave his old man, who is still not really coping with the death of his wife two years ago, than because he loves the work.
This night, the local sheriff (Michael McElhatton) brings trouble to their
door in form of a female unidentified corpse (Olwen Kelly). The titular Jane Doe
was found half buried in the cellar of a family home whose other inhabitants
have died under mysterious circumstances. How the young woman came to be there
nobody knows, nor is the cause of her death at all apparent – she looks as
well-preserved as any corpse you’ll encounter (he said, expertly).
On the outside she does at least. As the Tildens will discover during the
autopsy, on the inside, Jane Doe is suffering from all manner of horrible
injuries. Impossible injuries for that matter, for there’s no way her
inside could look like it does and her outside not showing any of it. While the
coroner duo puzzle over the corpse and what they find in it, strange and
increasingly threatening things start happening around them. It’s as if their
Jane Doe is much more then just a creepy corpse.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not exactly the film you’d expect André
Øvredal to direct after the brilliant POV horror/fantasy comedy Troll
Hunters. It is a very different film both tonally and formally, yet it
shares with the previous one its director’s calm control over his material and a
precise focus on what’s important for the film at hand.
Formally, The Autopsy is nearly classicist horror, taking the
autopsy gone wrong scenes we know as set pieces from quite a few other films and
turning them into a full movie that decides not to follow a lot of horror rules
established in the 80s. So there’s barely a body count – making the deaths that
do happen all the more emotionally important – and while this isn’t a film
that’s showing nothing of its supernatural threat (there’s a bit of the red
stuff for sure, some might argue even a bit too much in the finale scenes),
Øvredal prefers to use things that are heard but not seen, shadows in the
corner, and the audience’s minds.
He’s rather brilliant at this, too, using the small cast and the few rooms
the film takes place in to create a palpable affair of dread, isolating his
characters and turning their normal surroundings into a place of horror for them
(while still keeping the irony in mind that the characters’ normal surroundings
would certainly strike parts of the audience as anything but). The escalation of
the situation is nearly perfectly timed as well, developing slowly but not so
slowly anyone should get impatient.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is how cleverly it uses Tommy’s and
Austin’s relationship and their character background not only to make them
relatable to an audience (which is always well-meant but a very basic thing to
do) but really makes what makes them tick important to the way they relate to
the supernatural goings-on. Even though there’s a thematic and metaphorical
relation between Jane Doe and the Tildens, and more importantly to the way they
react to her, The Autopsy never falls into the habit of only
seeing its supernatural threat as the metaphor. So this is very much a film
about pain, what it does to people for worse yet also for better, and how we
attempt to take on other peoples’ pain, but it is also a film about two guys
fighting a supernatural threat that deserves quite a bit of compassion. Which is
just the way I like a horror film to handle this sort of thing.
I’m not terribly fond of the film’s final act, though, for in the last few
minutes, the plot stumbles into a needless array of horror film conventions that
doesn’t really feel of a piece with what came before. I wouldn’t be terribly
surprised if that most terrible of monsters, the focus group, had struck there
Still, a bad minute or fifteen are by far not enough to drag down a film this
accomplished and clever, so The Autopsy of Jane Doe is still one of the
best horror films I’ve seen last year (and 2016 had quite a few good to