Back in 2011, André Øvredal made easily my favorite found footage horror joint, Troll Hunter. Though it’s been a bit, the Norwegian director is back with his third feature, and English-language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe. And it’s a perfect genre antidote to big blockbusters and end-of-the-year award bait. Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate both of those things, but damn it gets exhausting, so it’s nice to have a bit of nasty horror counterprogramming.
Though they fall into the same larger genre category, Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe couldn’t be more different. Stylistically, aesthetically, really the only connective tissues are a pitch black sense of humor, an inherent cleverness, and an effective command of whatever horror trappings the story requires.
Working from a script by Ian B. Golding (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Richard Naing (Dead of Summer), Øvredal swaps out the sweeping, snow-covered Norwegian wilderness for tight, constrained interiors; jittery hand-held camerawork for, primarily, slow, steady shots; and thrills and action for chills and atmosphere. Both approaches work equally well, handled by a filmmaker with an understanding of what he wants.
The story revolves around two small-town Virginia morticians, a father and son coroner, Tommy Tilden (the great Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch). When the sheriff (Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton) drops a mysterious Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) on their slab, in need of cause of death ASAP, they discover there’s much more to this particular corpse than they initially expect. That’s all you really need to know. As in most cases, it’s best to go into The Autopsy of Jane Doe cold, and that’s when it will be most rewarding.
And it’s within this limited framework where Øvredal does his work. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a prime example of a filmmaker doing a lot with very little. With a cast of less than ten, and a small handful of locations—almost all of which are tightly restricted basement rooms—the filmmaker gradually ratchets up the terror and tension to skin-tearing levels.
The further Tommy and Austin get into their autopsy, the more questions arise, the more the mystery deepens. For every question, Tommy, an experienced third-generation coroner who’s been around the block, has an answer, until he doesn’t—it’s fascinating to watch the scientific process butt up against an unexplainable supernatural phenomenon. In their trade, peeling back the layers provides insight, but in this case, it only blurs the picture.
Lights flicker, radios change stations, and Øvredal makes excellent use of horror tricks and tropes. Gore hounds should be more than satisfied with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Witnessing the literal deconstruction of a body, there’s a twisted normalcy to the process. It’s at once clinical and personal, detached and intimate. Not exploitative and over the top—there are no spurting arteries or blood geysers—watching this dissection creates a raw, visceral, gut-level reaction. It’s gross and off-putting at the same time it’s addictive and entrancing.
The full emotional weight of the narrative falls squarely on Cox and Hirsch, who are both up to the challenge. They’re like scientific detectives methodically unravelling a sinister whodunit. Thematically about what remains hidden, Tommy still copes with the painful death of his wife, while Austin has his own secrets—he wants to leave the family business and run away with his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond). The Autopsy of Jane Doe intelligently leaves space for the two leads to work and develop, which results in an audience investment and resonance that’s too often swallowed up in horror bells and whistles.
Brian Cox has the intrinsic ability to walk into the frame and immediately add an air of class and distinction, no matter how lowdown and trashy the surroundings—and with 200+ credits on his resume, there’s some lowdown trash. And that’s a larger metaphor for The Autopsy of Jane Doe as a whole: on a surface level it’s cheap, small, and tawdry. But everyone involved working at the of their games elevates what could have been an inconsequential genre throwaway. Øvredal and company show what’s possible with these constraints, using them as stepping stones, where so many similarly formulated movies let them be anchors.
It’s been too long since Øvredal’s last movie, but this shows once again that he has real talent and refuses to let constraints pen him in. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is smart, taut, gory, funny, and tense, doling out just enough information and never over explaining.
I can’t wait to see what André Øvredal has in store next. He reportedly has a mythological fantasy called Mortals in the works, and there were reports a while back he was going to helm a promising sci-fi joint, though that looks like it may not happen. But whatever the premise, wherever it falls on the genre map, I’m so, so there. [Grade: B+]