After the body of a woman is found partially buried in the basement of a bloody crime scene, a father and son team of coroners take on the task of examining the body to discover the cause of death. However, in peeling away the layers in search of the truth, increasingly bizarre anomalies arise in the post mortem, suggesting something beyond belief … something that is beginning to take a hold on the world around them, with a vengeful evil.
The most striking element of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, one that it exudes from the very opening frames, is that of a controlled confidence. Director André Øvredal instils a sense of classical filmmaking craft: the framing, composition and momentum of the early exchanges move with supreme composure and elegance in their style; however, rather than taking this direction out of classism, Øvredal quietly and deceptively distorts their intentions. Camera angles tilt just slightly, composed shots leave you dreading what lurks at the edge of every frame, while contrasting to make close ups even more startlingly revealing as the steady rhythms of editing tease to shatter the tension at any moment. This overarching stylistic confidence is crucial in the genre shift that absolutely separates The Autopsy of Jane Doe as a superior piece of suspense and thrill, as if in the subtle chaos in the cold order of the construction echoes out into the ultimate decent into a darkness so perfectly pitched. It’s a bold but ultimately rewarding direction, as the balance of styles allows Øvredal to playfully shift and challenge expectations. The grounded attention to realism and detail even in the most brutally banal way, as Austin and Tony clinically and coldly eviscerate Jane’s body in the search for knowledge, enhances the sheer terror of the unfathomable horrors that besiege them, intangible and relentless. Øvredal sets out the rules of the game absolutely … only to delight in tearing them apart as the dread coalesces and the film becomes a different beast altogether, increasingly frenzied and raw as Øvredal evocatively contrasts the forensic with the fantastic: the true horror the film so gleefully depicts is the desperate fear that descends when search for truth is confronted with the impossible.
At its very best, The Autopsy of Jane Doe holds the sheer driving force of mystery and the skilfully manipulated suspense of a Hitchcock thriller. Indeed, you’d feel the old master would hold a wry smile of pleasure at the film’s playful mutation into a work of supernatural spectacle. Øvredal creates a sense of vital progression with every new layer of depth and revelation that unfurls from the prone body of Jane Doe. Body horror and psychological mystery seem to swirl within the McGuffin that is Jane herself; she becomes the perfect locus of horror: a puzzle box that is at once tangible and intangible, creating a visceral reaction within the audience, as she is both human and inhuman, disturbing the sense of tactile connection, and forcing questions of morality and scopophilic yearning that unsettle and entrance. Furthermore, the use of space in the film skilfully reinforces these hallmarks of playfulness and dark psychology, illicitly reflecting the relationship between environment and body. When the audience is first introduced to the morgue complex, Øvredal clearly lays out the geography of the location and its iconography, establishing key markers that will play out later in the narrative as the coroners are overrun by the horror. Interestingly, this geography is contrasted by the way the geography of Jane’s body is chartered, which is centred entirely on the suspense of discovery. In setting the boundaries of the location, while expanding the seemingly infinite potential of Jane’s body as a site of revelation and undiscovered horrors, Øvredal creates a tension that drives the relationship between fear and desire in the carefully constructed visual gameboard.
Perhaps the weakest element of the film is, for all fine balance of style and effective nature of the atmosphere, how the emotions between the central characters are pushed too far into the realm of the overdramatic, with the dialogue feeling particularly overwrought and obvious as the writers attempt drive home the dramatic beats and elaborate every technical specification at the same time; a contrast even more glaring in the wake of the subtle intelligence emanating through the other elements of the film. Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox both perform well individually, but never truly convince together in the father and son relationship, as the narrative doesn’t truly give them enough for a natural chemistry to develop, placing a strain on that particular element.
Ultimately, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an exquisitely crafted work of tension that never forgets the importance of being as effortlessly watchable as it is morbidly gripping. Øvredal builds on the promise of Troll Hunter to deliver an exercise in near flawless directorial control, manipulating emotion and crafting an atmosphere as precise as the incisions upon Jane Doe’s body … and just as revealing too. The combination of cultured finesse and genre thrills is strong enough to suggest The Autopsy of Jane Doe could become that rarest of delights: a cult hit with true crossover potential into mainstream acclaim.