The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of those films that you’ll likely come across almost by accident. It’s a small budget film (it’s not another kickstarter-micro budget as IM Global funded the production), but Norwegian director André Øvredal makes the most of it in his first American outing. The action takes place almost entirely around a small-town coroners office. An anonymous woman’s body has been found partly buried in the basement of a house where police had been investigating multiple homicide.
The Jane Doe arrives into the morgue and mortician Tommy Tilden (played by Brian Cox) and his son Brian (Emile Hirsch) settle in to work. As they investigate the body and start to go through the autopsy they debate cause of death; Tommy narrates his findings in an almost Sherlock Holmes level of detection and deduction. As he moves further along more and more questions keep arising: her ankles and wrists are all broken, but no signs of external traumatic injury. Her lungs appear to as if she would have been in immediate proximity to a fire, yet neither does she exhibit any signs of being burned or inhaling smoke.
The further they go, the more unusual their stranger’s case becomes. Jane Doe is played by Olwen Kelly. Øvredal cast her in part because of her Yoga training, giving her exceptional ability to control her breathing for longer periods of time so as not to ruin the effect of her corpse laying on the table through relatively long (and often up-close) scenes.
Øvredal went into the project wanting to do a horror film that wasn’t found footage (his prior effort had been Trollhunter). To that end he should definitely not give up on the genre or the non-footage approach. The first 2 acts of the film are about as tight and will written as we’ve found this year (or perhaps in the last few years of horror films). There’s little surprise that the film had been on Hollywood’s Black List of unproduced but favorite screenplays. Unfortunately is does fall short of being a great film in the third act. Once the reveal of the mystery has happened, the film shifts gears into a far more typical pitched battle for survival.
In the end it doesn’t take away the effect of thinking for a long time about how the first half of the film was really far better than we typically get. I liked it even overall more than 2014’s Babadook. The US opening is very limited, but it’ll be appearing on digital streaming services any day.
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