Every year I wind up missing a good deal of films as their advertising end up swallowed by the huge hype machines of bigger studio releases. But the true gems make themselves known somehow. Usually it’s through word of mouth, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe was a little different. My first experience with the film was during New York Comic Con as it had a small booth tucked away in the corner between free giveaways and other random promotions. What caught my eye was this cool looking fake cadaver with grey eyes and wrecked insides. That image hasn’t left my brain since.
Luckily the film itself was able to match that image I had built up in my head. The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a much needed, engaging horror thriller during a year lacking those chills. This is, by definition, a hidden gem.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Director: André Øvredal
Release Date: December 21, 2016 (limited theaters and VOD)
The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows father and son pathologists, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden operating out of their family owned morgue. When the body of an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly) is found, the two must figure out the mysterious circumstances behind her death. But as the autopsy rolls on, strange things begin happening and the Tildens find themselves struggling to escape the mortuary with their lives. This simple premise is what makes Autopsy work as well as it does. It’s a tightly focused feature never losing sight of its central mystery. I’m going to try my best not to divulge the film’s mystery, but honestly, the film isn’t even about the reveal. It’s all in the build-up. The entire film is built around this idea of confinement, and that’s reflected in the film’s editing and set design.
From the opening, there’s a keen sense of dread permeating throughout the film. The inspired choices like an aged mortuary building (enhanced by a lack of natural light thanks to Autopsy taking place late at night), to the casting of Jane Doe herself, help make the audience uncomfortable. Taking something as inherently disturbing as a medical procedure is made doubly so thanks to quick cuts to Jane’s face every time one of the Tilden’s makes an incision. Thanks to these close ups, the autopsy becomes more like a creepy surgery that permeates with dramatic irony as the audience becomes more suspicious of Jane than the characters. There’s also a refreshing flow to how much of Jane’s mystery is revealed at a time. By halfway through, you already know most of what is necessary to move the plot forward without going overboard. Unfortunately, since the film’s effort is put into Jane Doe, the Tildens get less development as a result.
There are some hints of tension between Austin and his father, but that’s more credited to Hirsch’s and Cox’s performances than to any character building. Due to the film’s tight focus and short time, there isn’t much room in the narrative for anything other than the mystery. Even as the Tildens fear for their lives, I found myself lacking the necessary wherewithal to care whether or not they actually survived. Because of this, the film lacks tension once Jane Doe’s origins are revealed. Since so much effort is put into its buildup, there sadly isn’t enough effort left over for the denouement. In fact, the finale even goes on for a bit longer than it should. There’s a particular scene toward the end that would’ve made for a perfect finale, but seeing Autopsy go beyond it lessened my enjoyment overall. I guess it’s more of a sense of disappointment given how well Autopsy had edited itself to that point.
But on the other hand, I do appreciate the uniqueness of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. While there are some ideas I would’ve liked to see the film explore further (especially when it teases metaphysical horror, which is something lacking from most current offerings in the genre), and I would’ve appreciated a better grasp on character, the film sets out to tell a certain story and competently does it.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a focused, chilling thriller that you should check out before you start writing your end of the year lists.