André Øvredal follow-up to Troll Hunter is an original, elegant horror tale anchored by a well-observed father/son relationship.
When an advance screener of André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter slipped into my machine at the end of 2011, the buzz about the film was already intense, with plenty of discussion about the fact that it had been optioned for a US remake before the film had even been released there. The remake never materialised and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away. So when I began watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which has been surrounded by another blaze of publicity (including favourable comments from Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro), I was a little wary. This caution was quickly dispelled, however.
In Grantham, Virginia, the unidentified body of a young woman is delivered to local coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox, Manhunter). She was found buried in the cellar of a house where three people were murdered in unclear circumstances. Assisted by his son Austin (Emile Hirsch, Killer Joe), Tommy begins his examination, immediately discovering a number of anomalous facts: the wrists and ankles have been shattered, but with no external markings whatsoever. In fact, there is no sign of lividity, rigor mortis or decomposition anywhere on the body, although the discolouration of the eyes suggests death did not occur recently. Further injuries are discovered: the tongue has been crudely severed, the lungs are charred and blackened, and various internal organs bear scars. The further they progress with the examination, the more the mysteries accumulate. But away from the dissecting table things are also getting a little strange: a violent storm builds outside, the ventilation ducts shake and shiver, closed doors swing slowly open and the radio keeps playing the same 1950s song.
At first Øvredal seems to be relying on the basic fear of death for effect; the mechanics of violent death and the grotesque rituals of pathology are certainly enough to create the requisite sense of unease. Thankfully, there are more cards in his hand than that, and he soon moves on to stylish and memorable horror sequences, simple and suggestive at first, then more elaborate and intense. The reasons behind the events are more original than you might expect, although influenced by certain aspects of modern Japanese horror.
As successful as these elements are, they would be considerably less effective without such excellent central performances. Essentially a two-character drama in a single primary location, The Autopsy of Jane Doe relies heavily on Cox and Hirsch, and the two rise to the challenge admirably. Behind his cold, scientific focus and macabre humour, Tommy nurses a deep-seated personal grief; Austin has grown up around death but fears he may never develop his father’s sense of detachment, and isn’t sure he even wants to. Perhaps the film’s finest moment comes when Austin finds their cat in a ventilation duct, horribly injured but just barely alive. Holding the creature tenderly, Tommy quickly puts it out of its misery. To greater or lesser extents, both men have learned to compartmentalize death, to separate the cadaver on the table from its human associations. But the death of the cat is too close to home to be rationalized, and their sadness is palpable. The scene has little relevance to the plot, but it helps to establish Tommy and Austin as ordinary, sympathetic people rather than ghoulish corpse-handlers, and the film is the better for it. Honourable mention must also go to Olwen Kelly as ‘Jane Doe’. She has no lines and never moves independently, but her pale, motionless features are haunting and intense in equal measure.