Though I first saw The Autopsy of Jane Doe about three years ago, I’ve been revisiting movies based on what is available via streaming. Since we’re all stuck at home for the foreseeable future, this is the first of a series of reviews of offerings from common streaming sites.
There was an old tradition of people placing bells on corpses so if they weren’t actually dead, the bells would ring and alert someone. It’s a terrifying thought. To be buried alive, or worse, alive, but paralyzed, with no way to communicate to anyone that you can see and hear and feel everything that is happening around you. Nightmares are built on such a scenario.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by Andre Ovredal’s and his first English language film, plays on many of those fears. The film is a great contrast to his earlier work, Trollhunter, a found footage movie about a Norwegian troll hunter, though both films do share some of the same characteristics: a sly sense of humor, well-drawn characters, and an understanding of building a world and an atmosphere.
A beautiful nude woman lies dead, partially buried beneath the ground. The police swarming around are perplexed by the gruesome scene around them. A brutal series of murders have occurred, but there is no sign of forced entry. Adding to the mystery, is an enigmatic woman’s body. She has no identification and no one knows who she is. Stranger still, the woman’s pristine corpse seems untouched. Her body is sent to the local coroner, where it is entrusted to the father and son team of coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), and his assistant, Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch). After three generations in the family business, Austin seems ready to break away from what is expected of him. As they start examining the body, the pair notices several odd injuries. When Tommy and Austin begin the autopsy, strange things start happening. The radio station mysteriously changes, there are noises and apparitions, and the family cat is injured. The actions escalate and intensify, leading them to believe that the body of this mysterious woman somehow plays into the unexplained events happening around them.
The first half of the film is in no rush, and that’s to its credit. There is a slow build that allows us to settle into the characters and the environment. The styling for the coroner’s office itself is quite clever. Rather than cold, sterile walls and colors, the morgue is run out of the basement of their home, which gives it a much more relaxed and almost welcoming appearance. There is color on the walls and clutter around; a comfortable mess. When the body of Jane Doe is brought in, her cold perfection is a stark contrast to the environment around her. The workplace should be neat and tidy, and the corpse should be the messiness existing within.
Ovredal’s casting choices were smart. Brian Cox is no stranger to the genre, and shares an easy repartee with Emile Hirsch. They make a believable father and son, with depth and history. Acknowledgement must also be given to Olwen Kelly, who plays Jane Doe. Despite what many would want you to believe, playing a corpse on screen is no easy feat. Not only does Kelly remain perfectly still, but her face still manages to convey character. She has the most striking eyes that manage to be both unsettling and stunning. Those remarkable unblinking eyes remain fixed in a blank stare, yet she is as an important part of the film as Cox and Hirsch.
As the film progresses, it does fall into a bit of predictability. While the autopsy scene takes up a large chunk of the film, all done in a manner that somehow manages to not seem too long or even gruesome, there was no way to make that the entire film. After some worthy scares and creepy moments of supernatural happenings, it does fall a bit into what some may consider a predicable choice when the true cause of the events is revealed. There is also one decision made about Jane’s character that is a bit regrettable, but to say more would spoil a bit too much of a major plot point.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an extremely well-crafted film. While it would have been easy for this to fall into a sub-par, low-budget fare, the fine cast and directing truly elevate it. In the hands of a lesser director or actors, the movie would undoubtedly not have been as successful. If you enjoy a creepy atmosphere with a touch of exploitation and the supernatural, this movie will more than satisfy you.
4 unidentified corpses out of 5
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is available to watch via Netflix