Back in 2010, Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal hit the indie scene with the fantastic horror mockumentary Trollhunter. His follow-up, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, is a radically different film—instead of the massive special effects driven epic, it takes place in primarily one location with two characters and a stripped down plot. It also leaves Trollhunter’s comic tinge behind for an intriguing mix of realistic science, gross-out tactics and survival horror. It has its flaws, especially in the third act, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe is fun ride.
The film opens at a multiple murder crime scene in a small town farm house. The detectives on the case are dumbfounded by the lack of obvious motive as nothing was stolen and there are no signs of breaking and entering. Even stranger, a dead woman is discovered in the basement, half buried and completely naked, without any connection to the other murders and any form of identification. As the title suggest, the remainder of The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes place at the medical examiner, a father-and-son family business played by Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox.
As strange as it may seem, the autopsy sequences which take up most of the film’s first half are among the most enjoyable. Television programs like Law & Order and CSI have created a general template for how filmed autopsies are presented. Typically, they are flashy and cool, with information obvious and simple. The Autopsy of Jane Doe performs in seemingly realistic scientific verisimilitude, slowly and procedurally in ultra-graphic detail.
As the Tildens examine the body, they quickly notice signs of a potential sex trafficking casualty—both wrists and ankles have been broken, the tongue has been cut out, and there has been obvious damage to the genitals. As they cut into her, however, things get stranger: the lungs have been severely burned as if the body was set on fire, a mysterious object is found in her intestines, etc. There are clear signals to multiple obvious C.O.D.s, but each is contradicted by other facts. As they literally dig deeper and deeper, stranger things begin to happen.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is never really scary, even when it is trying to be, but is consistently spooky. Øvredal creates a great environment, confined and in use of a morgue’s natural charms. Another tool is the film’s signature shot, a close-up of the Jane Doe’s face—over the course of the film, we see this shot roughly two dozen times. Jane Doe’s cloudy eyes pierce through the camera with a constant blank expression, a perfect visage to create uneasiness. Though the face never changes when it is shown, it seems to take on influence of what is going on around it, like the social experiment of people being shown the same face under different external factors so one says it is happy and another says it is sad. Model Olwen Catherine Kelly is captivating as the Jane Doe even though it isn’t really a performance at all. She is completely alluring.
The simple scenario and attention to scientific detail are the obvious strengths. Like many small-scale horror flicks, however, The Autopsy of Jane Doe feels like a short film stretched out. The mysteries naturally revealing themselves through the autopsy are satisfying enough, as that leads to more supernatural events, it becomes less appealing. Similarly, characters act in bizarre ways. For an early example, Austin Tilden (Hirsch) discovers the family cat dead inside the air shafts, a frequent hiding place as we’re shown. The problem is, they in no way react to the grimness of its mauled corpse, instead wordlessly placing it inside the incinerator in what is supposed to be a tender moment. They never wonder what happened to it or if it has anything to do with the increasingly strange things otherwise happening.
That said, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is another strong horror film in a pretty good year for the genre. Well directed, with a strong sense of atmosphere, the film may not terrify but it works on a different level. Though Hirsch and Cox may not have been given the strongest characters, they carry the film well enough—it is a dead body that steals the show, however, which is a genuine feat. The premise is fun with a slow build. By not revealing the mysteries until late in the film (it isn’t exactly a difficult puzzle to solve) many of the narrative shortcomings of The Autopsy of Jane Doe also aren’t revealed until after the film is over. In some cases, this might leave the viewer with “is that all?” For me, the experience was more than entertaining enough.