Sometimes, it’s better to keep things simple. How simple? Well, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a small, contained, low-key horror movie about the post-mortem examination of a mysterious, unidentified young woman. You don’t get much simpler than that. But putting aside the obvious title being obvious, this is a genre exercise that has the good sense to strip a concept down to its pale bones; it’s set in only a handful of rooms, stars only a couple of actors, is gruesome without being gory, and does a good job of not overstaying its welcome.
Trust André Øvredal to take audiences on a tour through a lady’s innards – and to be this obvious about it. His first and last movie, Trollhunter, from 2011, was a found-footage mockumentary about a government worker whose job was to exterminate trolls that were bedevilling the Norwegian countryside. It was a damn fine piece of craftsmanship and The Autopsy of Jane Doe is grim proof that it wasn’t a fluke. As a follow-up, it’s just as original and satisfying, but has tighter, more disciplined direction, and a less esoteric sensibility. Give this guy a big Hollywood canvas and he’ll paint a fucking masterpiece.
In the meantime, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are playing a father-son duo of morticians in small-town Virginia. Late one night, the local sheriff wheels in the body of a young woman (Olwen Kelly) who was discovered buried at a multiple-murder scene. Another night at the office, they think. A gloomy subterranean morgue is just the place for this kind of thing. Nothing untoward here. Until, that is, they begin the examination. This woman’s tongue has been hacked out. Her lungs are burned black. Her joints are shattered. Based on the internal devastation, she’s been killed multiple times over. But these are old wounds; scars, leftovers. If she survived all that, what killed her?
That question becomes less and less mysterious as soon as the cadaver starts coughing up clues, and the answers won’t surprise savvy genre fans, but the mystery is propulsive enough to sustain a taut 86-minute running time. What’s there is compulsively watchable thanks to the nuts-and-bolts of the filmmaking; it’s creepy without relying on cheap scares, it’s shot with a detached, observational sterility, and the director of photography, Roman Osin, paints in the colour of clogged, fatty arteries. Even the music is muted. How else would you hear the scraping whirr of a bone-saw, the crunch of an opening chest cavity, the squelch of peeling flesh?
The premise is terrific not because it’s entirely original (eventually the mortuary is beset by the usual flavour of unexplainable phenomena) but because it neatly sidesteps a lot of implicit horror-movie problems. Two morticians have every reason to not be creeped out by dead bodies, and a puzzling putrefaction seems suited to two medical professionals. It certainly helps that Cox and Hirsch are excellent actors who are able to really put over some of their inherently-ludicrous expositional dialogue. The screenplay, by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, has some of these necessary issues, and eventually reaches a faintly disappointing conclusion, but the atmosphere is sustained throughout.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is as stripped-down as these things get, and it’s so reliant on its reveals that to say any more would be doing the movie a disservice. Rest assured, it’s good, and if you get a chance to see it, you definitely should. What other choice do you have? The overlong, overblown A Cure for Wellness, or the hokey, reiterative Rings? You can do better.
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