André Øvredal has a way of making his horrific (pun intended) horror visions seep into one’s bones, like the cold and darkness they have in Oslo (not unlike many a Norwegian artist – see i.e., Jo Nesbø).
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch star in this claustrophobic showcase of virtuosity as a father and son coroner team who receive the corpse of an unidentified woman (hence a Jane Doe) for an autopsy that needs to be concluded by the morning. They are the only coroners of a small town and their morgue is isolated and subterranean; there is no escape (“From what?” you might ask. Well, read on…). It will seem like for them this is a cruel, but alas, unavoidable curse of fate.
Jane Doe was found at -or under- a homicide scene: in a shallow grave in the basement of two people who were brutally murdered. By whom? There were no signs of forced entry. And why didn’t they just leave? The crime scene makes it obvious that they tried quite hard to do so, even though there was seemingly nothing stopping them.
Her body is received by Tommy (the father) and Austin (his son), and the late-night autopsy begins, while outside a storm is raging – something that the radio weatherman won’t stop reminding us, during the intervals when the radio is not playing “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)”.
However, as the autopsy goes on, their questions are not answered, but followed by a chain of more -and sinister- questions. The morgue, a place that already feels off and unnatural (since we collect our dead there and preserve them before we bury them), is showing signs of unexplained movements. In a place of death, signs of life caught by the edge of one’s eye are not welcome. But the oddness and darkness that seem to slowly creep into the morgue are not coming from without, but from within; from the body of Jane Doe.
Her image is pristine, but her insides show signs of extreme trauma – even torture. Her ankles and wrists are shattered, as if she had been tied up very tightly. Her tongue is cut off, as if someone wanted to punish her for talking; her lungs are black, burned, but how? Her skin shows no contact with fire…
A little earlier in the movie, Tommy mentioned how in the olden days people would tie a little bell on the big toe of a corpse to make sure they were actually dead and not in a coma after they’d been buried; he does it too, just to preserve the custom though. Not that the dead would ever come back to life… And you just know, when that bell starts ringing, that things are becoming serious. Jane Doe, unmoving and silent from the slab, is controlling the strings. Her presence is somehow domineering, her face haunting (also thanks to the subtle uncanniness of Olwen Kelly as Jane).
The manner in which tension is built in this film is simply exquisite. We are on the edge of our seats, thinking, wondering, how is she doing this? Who was she? Why isn’t it possible to determine if she died ten hours or ten weeks ago? The film tugs at our curiosity, it makes us want to see more and simultaneously terrified to see the truth. To know the answer; the answer that the coroners themselves are horrified of, but just need to know. The body of Jane Doe tells her story in a torturous pace, while Austin and Tommy are sacrificing their sanity and much more.
It has been said/written by some that the movie’s pay-off, the climax of this story, was not worthy of all this build-up that preceded it. I could not disagree more. Not only is the answer rotten and satisfying, tragic and atrocious and so good, but the implications of the movie’s two final scenes are that much more ominous.
I recommend this without hesitation. Just like the protagonists, you too will feel compelled to finish The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0