I love a great “things that go bump in the night” movie. When a flick is properly spooky, jangling the nerves as it goes along its merry way, I can sit back, ease into my comfy chair and let the flick do its work. THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is that kind of flick. It takes what could have been a Nothing Happens movie and makes a real chiller out of it.
It opens on a grisly murder scene. A local couple has been slaughtered, but the mystery goes one layer deeper, literally, when the police find a naked body half-buried in the basement. When the Jane Doe arrives at the morgue of father-son coroners Tommy and Austin, the puzzle broadens. The deeper the medical examination goes, the weirder things get, as the two men find out that solving this puzzle may be dangerous to them.
In the wrong hands, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE would have been a slog. Watching two guys stand over a body, discussing what may have been a cause of death, might work for two minutes in a CSI episode, but could be deadly for an audience to accept over 86 minutes. With André Øvredal at the helm, atmospheric cinematography, some great editing, three superb performances and a compelling story, this flick is quite the opposite, and has become one of my new favorites.
At the crux of it is Jane’s body. Things get weird from the outset, and get progressively weirder. It appears she’s been bound, her bones shattered, but no external signs of that. Open her mouth, and her tongue has been cut out. Cut her torso open, and her body inexplicably starts to bleed. Reach into an organ, and there’s a parchment. Cut back her skin, and there appears to be another message. What is going on here? How is any of this even possible? At what point does it even matter that none of it is possible? And how on Earth could Jane Doe, a corpse on a coroner’s table, threaten the lives of Austin and Tommy? The answers to these questions are not easy, and some never get answers at all. The film is like an 8-piece kid’s puzzle that, as it goes, adds a multitude of pieces so that all of a sudden it’s a 1,000 piece puzzle where not all the pieces lock together. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this invested in a horror flick, especially because at the end, I don’t get the completed puzzle but one theory about what the puzzle might look like. Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing put together a stellar script, with all sorts of nuances, and Øvredal executes it nearly to sweet perfection.
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE works mostly because it’s just as much about the relationship of a father and son, and how they’re coping, both separately and collectively, over the loss of the mother. There’s a nice piece of dialogue early on, where the men are discussing Austin going on a date to a movie. He asks dad when the last time he went to a theatre, and Tommy recalls it was a night out with mom. Austin’s face says he’s enthralled in the story, and Tommy smiles in the recollecting. A subplot about Austin wanting to leave his dad’s practice comes along early, but it’s obvious the ties are still there holding Austin to his still grieving father. Their professional relationship complicates things; Tommy is a stern perfectionist with rigid rules, and he’s rough on his son’s inability to see what he sees in corpses. But he’s also got a sense of humor, and his love for both his work and his son is obvious. Jane Doe’s body perplexes both men, challenging them professionally and driving them to come to terms with their relationship in the wake of the loss of the mother.
That relationship wouldn’t be as dynamic without Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. Cox is an old pro, and knows how to play both the gruff and softer sides of Tommy. My dad has always been a perfectionist, and I spent a few summers working with him, so I can attest to the complex relationship, and how well Cox plays it off. It’s great to see Cox play a master who’s confounded by the facts in front of him. Hirsch is the perfect counterbalance as Austin, greener than dad, with a life outside the coroner’s table. Hirsch emanates caring for his dad, as well as his confusion as the night gets weirder, and outright fear later on. There’s a key point where Austin suggests they bail on this bizarre medical examination and pick it up later. It’s a crucial juncture for both men, and both actors play it totally in character to great beauty. Its the aggregate of scenes such as this, on the shoulders of these two actors, that make two guys standing around a dead boy an engaging affair for 86 minutes, instead of a talky, total bore.
There’s a third actor crucial to THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, Olwen Kelly, who plays the title character. I give her great credit for making Jane a compelling presence that goes beyond just being a body on a slab. Kelly expresses the horrors of what happened to Jane merely through her slack expression. Kudos for her being the engine that drives the film, and giving Jane character.
Adding to the performances are some excellent lighting and camerawork. The haunted house lighting plays beautifully, and even when the autopsy room is lit, the shadowy areas threaten to creep in. Øvredal’s shot composition is superb, with camera movement that moves the story and deepens the terror, instead of just adding flash. The quick cut editing at points reminded me of George Romero, and that’s a great compliment. All of it comes together in one nearly perfect craftwork of horror. This is as beautiful presentation of horror as I’ve seen in ages.
The flick is not without its flaws, though they’re few and minor. Unlike Jane, Austin’s girlfriend Emma is annoying, though there is a brilliant scene where Tommy satisfies her curiosity to see a corpse. She plays so little into anything, and could easily been left on the cutting room floor, though I figure the filmmakers kept her in so she could introduce the idea that Austin was ready to leave his father. That note, though, is also superfluous, as it never really plays into the mystery. There are also some jump scares that are totally unnecessary, especially as they’re in stark contrast to all the atmospheric chills.
You’ll likely forgive those minor sins once you reach the final act. There is a wicked revelation about Jane that suggests her agony and suffering are far from over, and maybe she’s not such a passive entity after all. This kicks things into high gear, and forces one of the men to make a painful choice. Kudos to Øvredal and his screenwriters for not going the easy way out, and to Cox and Hirsch for investing the ending with real human emotions.
In a horror landscape that’s become more grim than fun lately, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is nothing like that. It’s a great “things that go bump in the night” flick, a fun ride that made my spine tingle quite a few times, made even better by three characters I really cared for. It’s a new Fasso Favorite, and I can’t recommend it any more highly than that.