The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not an easy film to review. There’s so much I want to talk about, but to make reference to pretty much anything beyond the opening set-up may spoil the film’s wonderful surprises. This is a film that flourishes from going in cold, and I would be tempted not to read past this point at all. If this is where you’ll be leaving me, just take my word for it: The Autopsy of Jane Doe is brilliant and one of the best films of 2017.
The second film from director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) sees him make the switch to the English language and the results are stellar. Tony (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch) are a father and son coroner team. Just as they’re about to head home after a long day, a cop turns up at the morgue with a new body. Said Jane Doe was found half-buried in the basement of a local house after a gruesome unexplained massacre left the entire household dead. The media are about to come down hard and the department needs a cause of death by the morning. Austin delays date-night to stick around and help his dad, but as they start to go through the precise motions of their routine, nothing much seems to be adding up.
Where things go from there is an absolute treat, as each confounding detail further mystifies this case. Cox and Hirsch play off each other perfectly and their human relationship is an important constant as Øvredal starts to whip up a thrilling genre cocktail. Hirsch also achieves a really truthful rapport with Ophelia Lovibond, playing his girlfriend, Emma, despite her only having a few minutes of screen time. And, as strange as this may sound, Olwen Kelly‘s performance as the titular corpse is also stunning. She turns lying naked on a table for an hour and a half into an art form and the unnerving close-ups of her pale face chilled me to the bone.
Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing’s script is impeccably crafted, leaving nary a stray thread on this beautifully woven tapestry. Each disparate panel is seamlessly stitched together and Øvredal manoeuvres them with real skill and assurance. Øvredal plays on societal crime scene fascination and goes out of his way to test our voyeuristic stomachs. Bullet holes in the doorframe of the opening crime scene are framed with a static matter-of-factness. This approach continues, and we traverse the Tilden’s early investigations with fluid precision, as close-ups of tissue are squarely framed.
As Tony and Austin start digging, every incision and assessment is accompanied by squelchy sound design. The practical effects are really strong (both in fidelity and effect), and oozing body parts will leave you squirming. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the procedural investigation alone is really compelling, as we’re provided with a fascinating study of the coroner’s process. Tony repeatedly corrects his son, questioning his diagnoses and instilling a coroner’s code – they’re after the ‘how’; it’s the police’s job to worry about the ‘why’. The contrast between them is always present, but they also care so deeply about each other and their work together.
This excellently understated character work means that some traumatic beats during the finale hit like a tonne of bricks. For all Øvredal’s playfulness, there is some really dark stuff in here. His juggling of knowing levity with gut-wrenching gravity is masterful, and the film’s tonal confidence is deeply rewarding.
He’s playing in a recognizable genre sandpit, but the clarity and consistency of the film’s creepy ideas ensure nothing here feels stale. Conventional scare set-ups are enhanced by a wicked streak of black humour and Øvredal’s exquisite direction. The film constantly toys with us, tugging out our sleeves and poking and prodding our pressure points. The result is a highly disconcerting film that never lets you settle in your seat. The tension becomes unbearable, at times, as the film escalates perfectly all the way through to its conclusion.
There isn’t a single dropped thread in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Every aspect of this wonderful film is vital and fully utilised. In many ways, its efficiency suggests something stripped down, but the endless layers of this compact thriller provided as satisfying a helping of pure cinema as I had last year.