Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Andre Ovredal
Writer: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing
Producer: Fred Berger, Eric Garcia, Ben Pugh, Rory Aitken
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Kelly
Father and son coroners delve deeper into a haunting mystery as they perform an autopsy on an unidentified woman.
The small town of Grantham, Virginia has a whodunit on its hands when Sheriff Sheldon surveys a suburban crime scene and finds multiple bodies, but no substantial clues regarding the what or the why of the gruesome crimes. Stranger still is the discovery of a body half-buried in dirt in the basement: an unidentified dead woman whose perfectly preserved skin shows no external signs of trauma.
Sheriff Sheldon knows the media will have questions in the morning. That’s why he tasks father and son coroners Tommy and Austin Tilden to pull an all-nighter to determine Jane Doe’s cause of death. Whoever Jane is, she appears key to solving the murders. It’s now up to these two men to hole up alone in their morgue, trapped inside by a storm raging outside, and cut into the mystery by cutting into Jane Doe.
Except every time a scalpel slices Jane’s body, odd events take place. It starts with flickering lights and curious sounds over the radio. Things really get weird when Austin thinks he sees bodies shambling in the crematorium, and something unseen attacks Tommy in the darkness. The more they take out of Jane Doe, the more supernatural activity seemingly haunts the halls. Clearly, this is no ordinary autopsy. Evidently, Jane Doe is no ordinary corpse.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” goes right onto the list of movies best experienced by knowing as little as possible beforehand. It also earns entry onto any list of deeply intriguing thrillers with satisfying supernatural suspense to match the mystery maddening your mind.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” plays a little like a horror version of the “Fly” episode from “Breaking Bad.” Two men essentially exist in a bottle. The slow setup builds through their relationship until the story suddenly swerves into traditional tension territory before finally exploding in an out and out chaotic climax.
The drag to the father/son dynamic is that there is no significant differentiation between their dispositions. Tommy is mentor and Austin is padawan, though both operate in tandem to a point where they might as well be four hands on one body of characterization.
Austin has one early scene with his girlfriend Emma in which mention is made of the young man’s plan to leave the family business, something he has yet to discuss with Tommy. It’s the only time when that tertiary backstory bit ever matters, as it never leads directly to external conflict between the two men.
Dying a similar death of deflated drama is a father/son heart-to-heart over whatever happened to Austin’s mother. It’s meant as a bonding moment. However, when it is the one and only opportunity existing outside the autopsy room, and interrupts momentum mid-movie to boot, said scene doesn’t do the job of enriching any insight we already have into these people.
Personalities are instead created almost entirely through performance, with leads Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox breathing believability into bodies that scripting almost leaves in the lurch. Pay particular attention to Brian Cox’s facial expressions when Austin’s girlfriend looks over morgue bodies in act one. Cox exemplifies precisely how a production benefits from a journeyman actor putting experience into subtleties that leap leagues beyond just delivering dialogue and hitting marks on cue.
This might seem as silly to read as it feels to write since all she does is lay still the entire time, yet Olwen Kelly is oddly outstanding as the hypnotic Jane Doe. Whether it is something about her stare, her presence, or the way the camera cuts at intervals perfectly timed to balloon her catatonic menace, Jane Doe really becomes a full-fledged character without moving a muscle or uttering a word.
Director Andre Ovredal of “Troll Hunter” fame has a handle on how to keep his camera, actors, and scenery moving even when so much of the plot is propelled by two bodies standing over a third on an operating table. His cinematic style keeps scenes from succumbing to distractions that might stem from theatrical play staging or a narrowly focused narrative.
Ovredal is guilty of having a shallow bag of scare tactics to fill in some suspense blanks, however. Three times Ovredal uses the exact same jump-from-your-seat setup of bringing all audio down to zero, having Emile Hirsch creep his eye toward a peephole, and then having something suddenly sting the full film frame. Once is par for the course. Twice is pushing it. Three times is simply out of unique ideas.
Even these predictable frights are still in good fun. If the secret of “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” manages to stay secret, you’re in for a cleverly chilling folktale highlighted by fine acting and finer atmosphere filled with a feeling of hard to place malevolence. Look ahead to the reveal and the journey getting to it can become more of a dull wait.
Make the choice in the best interests of maximum entertainment. Eliminate anticipation for what’s coming and let “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” do what it does best. I’d be more specific about what exactly that is, but that would ruin so much of the surprise.
Review Score: 80