Movie Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

“Every body has a secret.”

2 Stars
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)


Director: André Øvredal

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond

Synopsis: The attempts of father-and-son coroners to determine the cause of death of a beautiful woman takes a sinister turn…

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Brian Cox (Blood, RED) is one of those actors whose name in the cast of a movie more or less guarantees that it will be watchable – even if only because of his presence.   The Autopsy of Jane Doe supports this theory: small-scale and low-budget, and unable to secure theatrical distribution, Norwegian director André Øvredal’s movie hails from the English-speaking movie industry’s overcrowded basement from where, like so many other DTV movies, it struggles to be noticed.   But in Cox, who plays here the older half of a father-son autopsy team, he has an actor who can hold his audience’s attention even when it’s constantly distracted by the gutted and wrenched-open body into which he’s frequently peering.

The Tildums – Austin (Emile Hirsch – Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour) and Tommy (Cox) – operate from a basement lab in some small unspecified town in the States (even though The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a British movie filmed largely in London).   The father and son are comfortable in each other’s company, and there’s no friction in their relationship, which is kind of unique when you think about it.   Austin even delays a date with his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond – London Boulevard, Man Up) so that he can help his dad conduct an autopsy on the body of a young woman found partially buried in the basement of a house from which the occupants appeared to be trying to flee when they met their end.

Father and son go about their work with the same air of matter-of-fact professional that you’d expect from mechanics stripping down an engine.   Even when a fly crawls from the woman’s right nostril they carry on their duties with barely a pause.   The screenplay, by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, who have worked mostly in TV until now, skilfully heightens the tension by playing with our expectations in this way, and find a willing co-conspirator in Øvredal, who pins the girl’s pale immobile face beneath the unwavering gaze of the camera while Cox closes in for the detail work, exciting fearful expectations that have us squirming in our seats.   It’s not often one feels the need to praise an actor for playing a corpse, but actress Olwen Kelly, who is on screen for much of the running time, does a remarkable job.   Playing dead is tougher than you think: it’s not just about holding your breath; it’s about keeping the muscles of your face relaxed as you do so, and not moving open, unblinking eyes for an age.

The unnamed woman, whom they call Jane Doe, shows no visible signs of trauma.   Her skin is smooth and unbroken and unmarked by scars or bruises.   If her cloudy eyes were shut she could be sleeping.   But as the Tyldums’ examination of her body progresses she yields increasingly disturbing clues to the torture she suffered while alive.   Her wrists and ankles are broken, her waist unnaturally small, and her tongue has been removed.   Despite the lack of surface wounds, her internal organs are badly damaged, which, as Tommy points out, is like finding a bullet in the brain but no entry wound.   And as Tommy and Austin literally dig deeper into the case increasingly odd things start happening around the lab.

Every set-up must have its pay-off, and it’s perhaps to be expected that The Autopsy of Jane Doe is unable to sustain the tense and spooky atmosphere of its first 45 minutes or so, but the way in which it descends so completely into genre stereotype (right down to a tiresomely predictable sequel-friendly twist in the last scene) is particularly disappointing.   As horror movies go, it’s a perfectly acceptable ending, but it’s one that is so inferior to the rest of the film that it appears worse than it is.   Nevertheless, on the evidence of his work here, Øvredal, who first came to notice with the over-rated Norwegian movie Troll Hunter, appears to be one to watch.

(Reviewed 9th January 2017)





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