The Autopsy Of Jane Doe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe
"Øvredal takes a handful of old tricks - a cheery song playing unexpectedly, lights blinking out in a corridor one by one, the tinkling of a bell - and uses them to chilling effect. The result is a film you really won't want to watch alone."

Anybody who saw 2010's Troll Hunter could tell that its director, André Øvredal, was a rare talent, but the longer one spends around the film industry, the more one sees such talents eclipsed by circumstance. A distinctive calling card is one thing; making a successful second film is quite another. So it is particularly pleasing to see Øvredal return with a film that not only lets his talent shine but is one of the best horror movies of the year.

Ultimately, films are about teamwork, and Øvredal is considerably aided in his endeavours here by the redoubtable Brian Cox. It's a joy to see Cox in such a meaty role as - with the exception of The Carer - he has spent too much time in recent years playing second fiddle to less talented youngsters. Here he plays widowed pathologist Tommy, working in the family morgue with son Austin (Emile Hirsch). Much of the film is played as a two-hander and neither actor crowds the other. Their natural chemistry, together with the rock music on the radio and the casual admixture of professional and personal conversation, encourages viewers to invest in them emotionally, and lulls us into a false sense of security.

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As the title implies, the story here is focused on an autopsy. Detectives investigating a break-in at a nearby house have found a family massacred and, in the basement, a young woman half buried in dirt. The puzzling thing about her is that, that aside, she looks as if she just stepped out of a shower. There's not a mark to be seen on her smooth, ivory skin - no bruises, no contusions, no sign of what might have killed her. And yet as her body gives up its secrets on the slab, it becomes clear that somebody has done her a shocking amount of harm.

Whilst this might sound disturbing, Øvredal isn't really interested in shocking viewers with gore. There's nothing of that sort here that you wouldn't expect to see in an episode of CSI. This is horror of a different sort, and though the story is ultimately very simple, there's tremendous power in the telling. Øvredal takes a handful of old tricks - a cheery song playing unexpectedly, lights blinking out in a corridor one by one, the tinkling of a bell - and uses them to chilling effect. The result is a film you really won't want to watch alone. There is none of the comic relief of Troll Hunter here, just endlessly mounting tension and terror backed by a less direct but equally disturbing thread of existential horror. How easy might it be to become a monster? How hard to escape that cycle?

Like Troll Hunter, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe benefits from tight plotting and a well-researched script that quickly sets up its characters as authorities in their line of work. There are a couple of small slips which you may spot if you know what you're looking for, but they're the kind of errors even an experienced professional might make when he has a lot on his mind. Well developed backstories contribute to the tension by keeping us waiting for conversations that may or may not come, and a sense of things unfinished adds to the weight of the tragedy underlying the narrative.

Finally, it's worth noting the impressive work done by Olwen Catherine Kelly as the eponymous Jane. Keeping perfectly still and blank scene after scene is no easy feat, and she never makes the slightest slip, even when being lifted about and repositioned. Although she is, naturally, naked, the clinical approach taken in the morgue desexualises this (necrophiliac viewers excepted) and the camera gives her beauty an alien, unknowable quality amid the clutter of the morgue. The more we get to know her story, the harder it becomes to imagine her experience, and we are reminded that the most terrifying thing in any horror film is that which goes unseen.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2016
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Father and son coroners get more than they bargained for when they examine a cadaver.
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Director: André Øvredal

Writer: Ian B Goldberg, Richard Naing

Starring: Ophelia Lovibond, Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Parker Sawyers, Michael McElhatton, Jane Perry, Olwen Catherine Kelly

Year: 2016

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: UK

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