The Autopsy of Jane Doe Movie Review
Written by Becky Roberts
Released by Lionsgate UK
Directed by André Øvredal
Written by Richard Naing and Ian B Goldberg
2016, 99 minutes, Not yet rated.
Emile Hirsch as Austin
Brian Cox as Tommy
Olwen Catherine Kelly as Jane Doe
Ophelia Lovibond as Emma
Basements have understandably become as germane a location for horror films as New York and Paris have for rom-coms, and Monument Valley’s rock formations for sci-fi flicks. There’s nowhere to run, few places to hide and plenty of corners to be backed into – not to mention no windows and dodgy lighting. What suburban setting could possibly be creepier? Well, how about a morgue in a basement? No, The Autopsy of Jane Doe writers Richard Naing and Ian B Goldberg could hardly have set their first feature in eerier circumstances. Except perhaps if they’d then plonked the morgue in the middle of a ghost town. Next to a cemetery.
In Autopsy the morgue is the home and work place of Brian Cox (The Bourne Identity, Braveheart) and Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild, The Girl Next Door), father and son coroners who late one night are sent the corpse of ‘Jane Doe’ for an emergency autopsy after she was mysteriously found buried at the scene of multiple homicides. When during the postmortem they begin discovering peculiar clues into of her past life and cause of death, they’re compelled to puzzle together her dark subsisting secrets and solve her enigmatic being.
The fact that it sounds like any old episode of Waking the Dead somewhat goes to show that The Autopsy of Jane Doe shouldn’t be too quickly pigeonholed into the horror genre. Not a great deal of dissection is required to see that the crime mystery element, which has more brains than those set on the coroners’ medical table and to any standards is a well thought-out and captivatingly fast-paced investigation into a dead body, is the crux of the film from which the horror is simply allowed to build around.
And build it does. It festers in creepiness and thrives on the plot’s uncanny context. It nails the delicate balance between jump scares and seething suspense, neither falling into the trap of being flimsily jump-happy, nor relying exclusively on climax-free tension building. It’ll have you throwing popcorn into the air when silences are broken by bangs at a door, as much as it will make you bury your head in it as you’re forced to endure the increasing loudness of a bell attached to an ever-nearing corpse, and lingering close ups of Jane’s eyes that you’re waiting to suddenly spring open.
After filming in the expanse of the Norweigan mountains for his arresting found-footage fantasy mockumentary Troll Hunter, André Øvredal returns to direct within a more confined capacity for his first English-language film. The entrapment and claustrophobia inherent to the basement subgenre plays naturally into the hands of the morgue (tidbit: the set was built from scratch in an East London warehouse.)
The containment also allows Autopsy to focus on the details and characters. The autopsy process, clearly well researched, could well be meticulous enough to teach a student medical examiner a thing or two, from its dialogue of the coroners’ conversations and recordings, to its authentically graphic and wince-inducing flesh-slicing-and-dicing, bone-cracking and organ-pulling gory. It’s an extensive examination of an extensive examination, per se.
It lays down an interesting father-son relationship that has legs far beyond colleague status – even if we feel there’s wiggle room in the 100-minute running time for it to have been taken even further – and it’s handled seemingly instinctively by Hirsch and Cox, who both put in convincingly heartfelt performances.
It’d be unfair not to overlook the leading lady herself: Olwen Catherine Kelly, who at the London Film Festival Cult Gala screening earlier this year modestly exclaimed her role was to simply not distract her co-stars and crew members, and who does a good job of… laying still – a talent I hope hasn’t gone to waste during the mannequin challenge craze.
The final moments aren’t without twists and turns, The Autopsy of Jane Doe determined to pledge itself to engaging and unpredictable storytelling right up until the end credits roll. When they do, you can feel safe in the knowledge that the last hour and a half has been spent in entertaining and thoroughly chilling company.
I'm pleased to report that, in the horror genre, it’s two from two for Øvredal.