Six years ago Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal burst onto the scene with Trollhunters, the whip smart faux documentary about a team hunting down trolls in the snow covered cave and fields of Norway. It left fans clamoring for whatever his next project would be, even after Øvredal seemed to drop off the map. Well he’s returned in glorious fashion with his English language debut with the small but chilling Autopsy of Jane Doe. The film hits all the right notes, blending a mix of a rabbit hole style of mystery, supernatural chills and family drama that keeps the viewer on edge and invested as the proceedings unfold.
The film opens inside a grisly crime scene inside a sleepy Virginian suburban home. The police are baffled. Despite the carnage within the walls, there are no signs of a forced entry or a domestic struggle that led to a murder/suicide. If anything it appears the family attempted but failed to escape the home. What the cops find in the basement baffles them even more. Half buried in the loose soil lies a the corpse of a young woman in pristine condition. The “Jane Doe” in question shows no outward signs of injury, wounds or trauma, leaving the team puzzled how this stranger came to rest in the dead family’s basement.
The sheriff turns the body of to the local coroners, the father son team of Tommy & Austin Tilden (Bryan Cox and Emile Hirsch). With the sheriff explaining the urgency for an answer by morning, and a humdinger of a storm looming overhead, all other plans must be put on hold while the duo perform the autopsy. As Tommy & Austin begin their grisly work, the body begins to reveal its secrets. The most difficult part of the autopsy becomes pinpointing a singular cause of death, as the contents inside the cadaver reveal a host of occurrences, and each one contradicts the flawless external condition of the body. Both wrists and ankles have major fractures which suggests someone bound and quartered the woman. The lungs are blackened in accordance to someone who has burned to death. Abrasions in the genital area suggest blunt trauma to the region. The heart and organs reveal major scar tissue in line with a stabbing victim while the contents of the stomach contain a paralyzing agent. Each reveal points to what must have been a horrific death for our Jane Doe yet stands at such a marked contrast to what the Tildens see in front of them that they cannot wrap their heads around it.
At the cusp of a game changing reveal, events begin to heat up. Øvredal cleaves Autopsy into two neat halves with surgical precision. The first half provides an in depth detail of the autopsy procedure. It unfurls like a procedural thriller. The second half ramps up the supernatural chills as the corpse’s self preservation mechanisms kick in to high gear. Our Jane Doe refuses to yield her origins and her demise without a fight. While a storm rages outside, Tommy and Austin find them besieged by unexplainable and downright terrifying circumstances. Øvredal strikes a balance between smaller moments build up towards unbearable levels of tension and larger set pieces. There’s nimble touches such as a radio news broadcast updating listeners on the storm’s trajectory with eerie parallels to the action taking place in the autopsy room.
A trio of standout performances elevates The Autopsy of Jane Doe from a competent and time-worthy thriller to a film that deserves a place at the table when the discussion turns to the best genre films of this year. As the silent, unmoving corpse, Olwen Catherine Kelly will receive a pittance of the praise she deserves as the unblinking, unmoving Ms. Doe. Make no mistake however, even as a corpse Kelly adds layers to the film. Overdal manages subtle camera manipulations that bring Doe to “life” depending on the on screen occurrences. There are moments where Kelly’s face seems to betray the pain of what’s being done to her body as the autopsy is performed. The same expression is framed as triumphant later on when she gains the upper hand.
It’s up to Hirsch and the veteran Cox to shoulder the load however, and luckily they are up to the task. The pair share wonderful chemistry together and there’s a warmth to the father and son relationship that a lesser film would bypass in order to heighten tension without giving the audience a reason to invest in the characters. Both characters carry a heavy burden of grief over the recent loss of their wife and mother while the younger Austin struggles to find the right way to tell his father he wants to leave the family business in order to move on with his life. As always Bryan cox is a joy to watch. In Jane Doe we see the way his patriarch buries his grief by throwing himself into his work and his stubbornness that cloaks his repressed guilt at not recognizing the warning signs of his wife’s illness (more on that in a moment) with his insistence on finishing what they began despite the increasing weirdness of the situation. Both Hirsch and Cox convey a sense of respect and warmth towards one another’s characters, in particular the way Hirsch’s Austin cannot leave his father’s side no matter how badly he just wants a night out with his girlfriend. Cox’s Tommy remains a larger than life figure in the adult son’s eyes.
It’s strongly hinted though never spoken outright that the mother and wife of the two men committed suicide after a long struggle with depression. Tommy punishes himself for failing to recognize she had any issue while expressing near shock that the woman he described as a ray of positive light and energy could have carried the burden of crippling mental illness. Many who have suffered from the disease could tell you that depression is a silent crippler. It often carries no external symptoms and is misunderstood by so many. Too often one hears “have you tried just not being sad?” by people who would never say “have you tried just not having a tumor?” to a cancer patient. In this way the pristine exterior that encases the battered organs of our Jane Doe serves as a thoughtful allegory for the fact that mental illness too often carries few outward warning signals. In fact, all three of our characters bury their secrets deep within: Doe and her cause of death, Tommy and the residual guilt and pain he carries over his wife’s death and Austin for his conflict of wanting to uproot and leave while not deserting his father.
If one missed that parallel because they were too caught up in the external depiction of the autopsy it would be hard to blame them. Øvredal films the procedure with tremendous attention to detail. These moments of cutting out and excising the organs won’t be for the squeamish, and they add another layer of horror on top of the ongoing mystery surrounding Doe.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe continues the incredible run of films IFC Midnight has been on as of late. From Baskin to I Am Not A Serial Killer, The Devil’s Candy and now Jane Doe, the distributor continues to churn out diverse tales of indie terror. By blending an enriched family drama with supernatural horror, Øvredal delivers one of the more special titles of the year, and a must-see film for any genre fan.