Father and son coroners who receive a mysterious homicide victim with no apparent cause of death. As they attempt to identify the beautiful young “Jane Doe,” they discover increasingly bizarre clues that hold the key to her terrifying secrets.
The horror genre is so often dominated by stupid characters doing stupid things, so it’s refreshing to watch a film like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Here is a frightening story about two intelligent men whose talents for science and deduction break against a wall of undefinable supernatural power. Here is a fascinating mystery where the pleasures are not only derived from a series of increasingly terrifying and impossible discoveries, but from watching these two men work down a checklist of every possible rational explanation before realizing they are beyond their limits.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a film as interested in process as it is in jump scares and the result is one of the most entertaining horror movies I’ve seen in a year that has had no shortage of great scary movies.
Those who come to The Autopsy of Jane Doe because they’re familiar with director André Øvredal’s previous film, the hilarious and endlessly imaginative found footage adventure Trollhunter, may be in for a surprise. His latest film, his first in the English language, has little in common with his previous feature beyond its sure-handed direction, attention to detail, and obsession with lead characters who radiate intelligence in the face of the impossible.
Here, that character is Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), a third-generation small town mortician who spends his days amongst the community’s dead with his son and assistant, Austin (Emile Hirsch). Their dynamic is efficiently painted in the opening scenes. Tommy is a veteran when it comes to dealing with the dead and his work ethic is one part scientist and one part Sherlock Holmes. Every dead body delivered to their basement workplace is a mystery and in Austin, he has the perfect sounding board (a perfect Watson, if you will). Austin, while undeniably skilled as a medical assistant, has put off future plans to stay by his father’s side as he struggles with fresh emotional wounds caused by his wife’s death. Cox and Hirsch have a strong rapport and are instantly believable as a father and son. They tease each other and complain and occasionally groan about the other’s decisions. They’re total pros.
It’s a good thing their dynamic makes for such solid cinema, because they represent two-thirds of the important characters in the film. That final third is the titular “Jane Doe” (Olwen Kelly), a dead body uncovered at a grisly crime scene with no obvious wounds. The police need a cause of death by the next morning, so that means an unexpected long night for the duo.