The Autopsy Of Jane Doe sounds like a fairly grisly prospect. The bulk of the film is the investigation of a woman’s naked corpse, after all, but a nifty script by Ian B Goldberg and Richard Naing, expert direction from André Øvredal and a pair of strong performances makes this a surprisingly effective and genuinely surprising chiller.
Father and son coroners Tommy and Austin Tilden (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) are just finishing up for the day when the Sheriff (Michael McElhatton) arrives with a rush job. An unidentified woman has been found buried and a cause of death must be established as soon as possible.
The Tildens get to work but this corpse isn’t like anything they’ve ever seen. Despite seeming absolutely pristine on the outside, her insides show signs of incredible violence. The deeper Austin and Tommy go, the stranger their discoveries become, and as a storm picks up outside, they realise that they’re in serious trouble.
Øvredal’s long-awaited follow-up to Trollhunter is a very different proposition to his found-footage horror comedy. It’s a finely-crafted slow-burner, with the filmmaker ratcheting up the tension as potential explanations for Jane Doe’s unique condition come and go. Together with cinematographer Roman Osin, he makes the most of his atmospheric, claustrophobic basement mortuary location, which goes from being eccentric and oddly homey to increasingly treacherous as the film goes on.
The filmmaker also takes great pleasure in jolting his two heroes out of their casual working routine of slicing and dicing, and with each successive cut and revelation Jane (played by Olwyn Kelly) takes on new dimensions, becoming a powerful third character in the story even as she lies there perfectly still and lifeless and forcing Tommy and Austin to really look at and engage with her.
Cox and Hirsch are on fine form too, with the veteran actor particularly good as the paterfamilias still grieving for his wife but refusing to talk about it. Hirsch does fine work as he tries to support his old man while trying to get him to open up, and their relationship gives the film an added emotional heft.
It’s so carefully constructed that it’s a shame when some disappointingly generic problems rear up in the second half. One big shock is signposted so clearly early on that the biggest surprise is that the filmmakers don’t subvert it, and the big reveals of the climax aren’t treated with the same care as the first stages of the unwrapping. That being said, we’re pretty confident that you won’t see the twist coming.
There are some problems, but this is an intelligent, unpredictable and very well-made horror mystery that subverts the expected genre clichés and really does get under your skin.