Most Americans first met the horror voice of André Øvredal with his off-kilter monster movie/mockumentary Trollhunter in 2010, a mildly cuddly piece of horror fare that’s easily earned a spot as one of the best films of the found footage genre. But with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Øvredal’s first English language film, any illusions of the director as soft-hearted genre helmer have been shattered. While emotional, Jane Doe is no more cuddly than the cold steel slab our object of curiosity occupies, and the series of events Øvredal orchestrates might test the resolve (and the stomachs) of even devoted horror fans.
The film follows Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch), a father-son coroner team who manage the morbidity of their living by highlighting their noble pursuit of cold, hard facts. And here, finding cause of death is the name of the game. So, the two dutiful snap through sternums and pry open rib cages in search of the truth: smoke inhalation, blunt force trauma, asphyxiation, et. al. And while Tommy is happy to spend most of his waking hours in the cold blue light of the autopsy room, Austin clearly wants something more, as the young man is tempted away from his inherited profession by the promise of something more (and, of course, a beguiling crimson-haired girlfriend).
But –as things tend to happen in a genre such as this—on one dark and stormy night, a curiously unmarred body arrives at the lab, an unidentified woman who, despite her immaculate outer appearance, sports shattered wrists and ankles, among a plethora of disturbing ailments I won’t spoil here. Inevitably, as the storm rages outside of the lab, and as the curiously dark details of this unknown body begin to pour in, the pair become trapped inside of a twisted mystery with deadly consequences.
Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox’s natural chemistry is the film’s first clear strength, as it takes little to imagine the duo’s immense history, an element that helps drive the film from claustrophobic oddity to skillfully staged chamber piece. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a two-hander through and through, as the pair is forced to play not just against one another and from the unresponsive, milky-eyed body in the room, a feat that would be unfair to ignore.
The central mystery is compelling, though less committed viewers might initially find themselves repelled by its opacity. But the mythology is rich and intriguing, the center of which makes for a premise rich enough to spawn a franchise of its own. The weakness though, is the way in which the mythology is exposed—thanks to a script from first-timer Richard Naing and Once Upon a Time writer Ian B. Goldberg—and the film hits a hiccup in the form of a massive exposition dump that threatens to derail the whole film.
Luckily for Øvredal, it doesn’t, and though the film’s paces don’t register as anything groundbreaking, the director knows how to weave across a well-beaten path with such ferocity it feels almost new again. And while The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t destined to be a classic, it’s got grotesque imagery and ideas to spare—a modern day fairytale with a thoroughly rotten core.
It’s been a great year for horror, and while that’s a great thing for audiences, it’s not so great for Jane Doe, which feels regrettably doomed to be a footnote on a barn-burner of a year. But for horror devotees looking for an engaging gothic mystery inside their nasty genre fix, it will more than do the trick.