The Autopsy Of Jane Doe doesn’t really need to come with a warning about how graphic it is. The title alone feels like a dare, and it's 100% truthful: you will, over the course of this motion picture set nearly completely in real time, see a gruesome post-mortem examination of an anonymous young woman. But let’s here and now issue a different kind of warning: if you skip The Autopsy Of Jane Doe based on the grisly promise of its title, you will miss one of the smartest, most gripping horror movies in recent years.
The film opens on a crime scene riddled with dead bodies, all but one a victim of an obviously violent end. In the basement is the lone exception, a half-buried young woman (Olwen Kelly) whose body shows no outward signs of trauma. She is delivered to a local family-owned morgue, where the proprietor Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) get to work on discovering the woman’s elusive cause of death. At the same time, the two men are also struggling to understand the mysterious death of another woman - Tommy’s wife and Austin’s mother who, the film hints, recently succumbed to a depression neither men realized was there. As the men begin to peel away layers of the subject on their slab, they discover her pristine exterior belies an interior full of scars and other signs of abuse. And it eventually becomes clear (to them and us) that they’re dealing with something neither of them have ever encountered under their roof.
Cox and Hirsch are both excellent; their characters have an easygoing rapport and a genuine affection for one another that’s a nice break from the standard strained/angsty/tortured family relationships often found in modern horror films. The mere presence of these two accomplished actors lends cred to the unsavory sounding project, and they both deliver. Austin is an understanding, reverential son, seemingly unable to NOT be there when his dad needs him. Cox's Tommy is a gentle, quietly pained man looking for an opportunity to atone for failing his wife. It's rare to find such inner life in a horror film, let alone inside both its protagonists.
Olwen Kelly, on the other hand, is frankly astonishing in what might seem to be, on paper, the nothing title role. Lying naked and motionless on the coroner’s slab, her clouded eyes unblinking, Miss Kelly fills the screen for a large amount of the film, and she's captivating. But while some might call this merely solid casting or canny editing, I suspect it's deceptively accomplished acting, and Miss Kelly makes Jane Doe a genuine, legitimate presence in the film - literally without batting an eyelash. Make no mistake: this is a great performance.
You’re going to guess the “twist” of The Autopsy Of Jane Doe - or at least come close - fairly early on. But it’s important to recognize in our current “mystery box” culture that twists come in all shapes and sizes. They can tip their hands early, dole out breadcrumbs, or string you along in any number of ways besides blindsiding you Sixth Sense-style in a film’s final moments. Besides, the real twist here isn’t in the plot details, but rather how that plot fuses with the film’s themes of guilt and mourning, and how both play into what seems like an endless loop - of which we only see 99 minutes - of men trying in vain to learn what makes the women in their life tick (and/or cease to do so).
And in watching the grieving Tommy and Austin dissect an unknowable woman in an attempt to understand what killed her, audiences will fall into two camps: those who like a little subtext worn on a horror film’s sleeve, and those who don’t. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe doesn’t box out the latter, but it will be extra rewarding for the former. Like The Babadook before it, director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) eschews many contemporary horror aesthetics, giving the film a deliberate, measured pace, and filling it with graceful camera work and rich production design. And like The Babadook before it, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe takes an almost primal horror premise and grafts onto it something very human, universal, and beautful.