It’s late on a dark and stormy night when the town sheriff brings a new body for Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden, the county’s father-son coroner team, to autopsy. She was found at a crime scene full of mangled corpses that the police still can’t explain, only she appears completely unscathed. When Tommy and Austin bring the Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) to their basement morgue, and start cutting her open to discover her cause of death, they discover that her unscathed skin hides a set of burned lungs, heavily scarred organs, and shattered bones; and that in every other way, she is completely unlike anyone else they’ve had on their slab.
Everything about The Autopsy of Jane Doe works on a mechanical level. The setting, a very old house with a basement morgue, is scary even in the best of conditions; and once the people who live and work there start becoming terrified of what’s around every corner, the tension increases exponentially. The same goes for the body-horror. When coroners are freaked out by what’s happening with this corpse, it give the audience a greater excuse to be very afraid of this lifeless(?) pile of skin, blood, and guts. This is doubly impressive as the movie is graphic without ever being particularly gory. The autopsy of Jane Doe is being handled by professionals, and is treated with a fitting respect and clinicalness.
Cox and Hirsch have excellent chemistry as father and son, with Cox supplying a wizened expertise and gravitas, while Hirsh gives Austin a youthful warmth and concern for his hardened father and every body that passes through their house.
Despite not once ever even twitching or blinking, Kelly steals the show as Jane Doe. A combination of incredibly dedicated acting and immaculate editing makes every cut from the growing horror to Jane Doe’s blank face seem more and more sinister, as viewers project malice through the Kuleshov effect.
Effective blocking, use of mirrors, the rule of threes, and his eye for detail cement André Øvredal as a strong genre director. Every pay-off is clearly set up, and by the end of the movie you have the layout of this basement almost completely memorized.
And while The Autopsy of Jane Doe keeps its plot simple, you’ll likely solve Jane Doe’s mystery a full act before the Tilden boys, that’s not what holds back the movie from being a must see. Rather, it’s Jane Doe’s reluctance to commit to its monsters’ raison d’etre, which should be the thematic core of the movie.
Many of the best horror films, the classics and the best of the contemporary, have a pretty simple thematic premise that the horror is built around. Recent examples are, of course, The Babadook and It Follows, which are entirely built around parental fears regarding projecting their own problems into their children, and fears around sex and commitment, respectively. Everything in those films is a reflection of those central themes, with the monsters being physical embodiments of how those fears manifest emotionally.
Nominally, The Autopsy of Jane Doe has one of these themes, it’s about how women are abused by men who objectify and take them for granted; but the rest of the movie pays lip-service to this rather than actually use it as its center. One of these moments of lip-service, that touches on what happened to the Tildens’ wife/mother, happens so late in the run-time that it feels completely out of place. And during the movie’s wrap-up, when one character performs a very decisive action against the monster, it’s ambiguous if it’s because he – and by extension, the audience – does so as a confrontation of the theme, or just out of survivor’s guilt.
It sucks because the very final scene of the movie is a smart commentary on the theme’s cyclical nature throughout history, but by that time we’re already over the climax, the wind is out of the movie’s sails.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a great movie if you’re looking for an hour-and-a-half of really well done scares, but a reluctance to commit to its theme hobble’s the movie’s ability to follow you after the credits roll.