Written by: Ian B. Goldberg, Richard Naing
Directed by: André Øvredal
Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, and Olwen Catherine Kelly
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"All these mistakes... my mistakes... and you had to pay for them."
As its title suggests, The Autopsy of Jane Doe dwells on grisly details. It does so immediately, as viewers are thrust right into the middle of a horrific crime scene: corpses rot away, the victims of some unknown transgression, while the house remains mysteriously untouched. This is the stuff of grounded, real-world horror, and very much disturbingly so: this is the sort of thing that unfortunately makes for sensationalist nightly news headlines. Even when investigators dig out an impossibly preserved cadaver from the cellar, this grim sense of reality seemingly guides The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
“If you can’t see it, touch it, it doesn’t matter,” coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) reminds his assistant (and son), Austin (Emile Hirsch), who is prone to speculating about the corpses that routinely make their way to their small town mortuary. For all the world, this looks like a film that will insist on logic and realism as it unravels its central mystery: just what happened to this young girl, whose face is now frozen in a moment of ghastly horror?
However, as the night wears on, the answer to that question becomes increasingly perplexing with the father-son mortician duo tasked with providing the police with some kind of explanation. Their autopsy turns up one bizarre—no, impossible—discovery after the next: somehow, this Jane Doe has fractured bones and rotted internal organs, yet her skin doesn’t feature so much as a scratch. To put it in Tommy’s terms, this would be like finding a bullet buried in someone’s brain without finding an entry wound. What they see before them should—and could not—possibly exist, and yet here they are, plying strange objects from her mouth and stomach.
Eventually, both this duo and the audience realize that nothing is quite what it seems with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a film that zigs and zags magnificently. Co-writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing craft what appears to be a single-location mystery, with Jane Doe’s body acting as a puzzle that needs to be torn apart in order for everything to be put together. During this early stretch of the film, director André Øvredal obliges with an unflinching look at the process, leaving squeamish viewers (including, yes, this writer) peeking through their fingers as Tommy and Austin burrow through this girl’s body in an attempt at uncovering anything that makes a lick of sense. It’s gross but also impossible to look away from as the mystery deepens, seemingly pointing towards a visceral thriller in the order of Saw, what with the prominent, mysterious corpse and whatnot.
Remarkably, this is the film at its most basic, and even so, it’s one of the more refreshing horror films in recent memory: when you’re not quite sure exactly what it is, it appears to be this wry little hangout movie where a father and son futz around with a corpse, chatting away as they attempt to arrive at an answer. Not only does it put the audience off-center, but it also allows the film to breathe and savor its lived-in world. Much of that derives from the natural rapport between Cox and Hirsch, whose characters arrive with a subtle sense of history. Austin is currently struggling with his decision to leave town with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), as his guilt over abandoning his widower father burdens his conscience. Cox delivers this wonderfully assured turn as a weary man who’s seen it all and has an explanation for everything, yet allows hints of vulnerability that signal it’s all just a front. He knows it, but, more importantly, Austin knows it, which explains why he blows off a date to work with his dad when Jane Doe arrives at the end of his shift.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is so gripping that I felt like I could watch it if this is all it was: this amiable father and son picking apart and analyzing forensics, like the most fucked up game of Clue imaginable. Before long, their curiosity gets the best of them and they can’t help but speculate about the girl’s fate, with each explanation escalating wildly from the next. Speculation about a possible human trafficking ring end gives way to something more ethereal (if not Satanic) as the situation around them grows stranger: suddenly, the radio’s on the fritz, with an old-timey (and unsettling) hymn interrupting the local weather reports about an ominous, gathering storm. About halfway through the autopsy, Austin says aloud what everyone is thinking: they really, really fucked up the minute they allowed this cadaver to roll into their morgue.
Questions and particulars still linger, but suffice it to say The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes quite a turn. Honestly, I would have been captivated if it had taken the most mundane route offered—the setup (premise, character work, and atmosphere) is so gripping that the eventual payoff feels like gravy. It’s the rare mystery with whose revelations feel like they could be a matter of course, and it goes and knocks it out of the park anyway: granted, the turn of events mines a mythology that’s right in my wheelhouse, but it allows the film to reach its full spook-a-blast potential. Once the pieces start to fall into place, they do so with gory accompaniment that doesn’t come without some measure of heartbreak, given just how much is invested in these two characters. There’s a real “oh shit” moment when these two realize they’re trapped in the bowels of a mortuary—and their shared grief and regrets that already haunt them.
This is a film that takes a remarkable turn both narratively and tonally, ending a far, supernatural cry from its more grounded premise. It’s no less fascinating once it spills its secrets, either. During the course of the film, Olwen Kelly’s performance as the titular Jane Doe evolves from a plot device to an actual presence. Despite playing a corpse, Kelly begins to haunt the film, her dead, terrified eyes hinting at something awful even before viewers are privy to her fate (at which point that bewildered shock in her eyes reads as more wry and vengeful—it’s a truly astonishing, subtle performance). Øvredal deftly maneuvers the various twists and turns, allowing the Jane Doe’s secrets to masterfully intertwine with the cycle of guilt Tommy and Austin have been locked in for years.
It’s always such a pleasure to see a mystery come together effectively: The Autopsy of Jane Doe doesn’t just pay off its premise, it does so with wry gusto. You never expect to be left smiling by a film that opens with the corpses of a slain family, after all. Usually, I don’t pay much mind to the pull quotes on a film’s packaging, but I couldn’t help noticing that Stephen King lavished this one with praise. After seeing it, it’s not hard to see why, as The Autopsy of Jane Doe captures so much of what makes King’s work thrive: colorful characters, a sense of primal preternatural evil visiting a small town, and a wicked premise.
Most importantly, it playfully turns that wicked premise right on his head, which is the very essence of King’s work. In a vacuum, much of it is familiar, but it’s been picked apart and repackaged into something that’s refreshingly vital and deliriously entertaining. Given the grim premise, it’s hard to believe how fun a movie titled The Autopsy of Jane Doe is—which, of course, is also true of King’s work. That’s high praise, but it’s well-earned.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe arrives to Blu-ray on May 2nd courtesy of IFC Midnight and Scream Factory.
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