Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.
In The Autopsy of Jane Doe, instead of presenting us with a linear storyline, screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing let something else tell the story: a human body. As the title suggests, the film’s center is the corpse of an unidentified female. After her body is discovered half-buried in a house where an entire family was brutally killed, she is dropped off at a small-town coroner where she will be autopsied by a veteran of the field and his young, upstart son.
The coroners are Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), who are tasked with determining a cause of death for the young woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly). Perplexingly, the exterior of her body is clean, almost spotless, while her internal organs are in complete disarray. Her tongue has been crudely removed, her lungs are blackened as if she suffered third degree burns, her heart has mysterious scars on it, and her ankles are snapped, as if she’d been hogtied.
The more Tommy and Austin poke, prod, cut, and discover, the stranger things get around the morgue, the setting in which we’re confined for much of the film. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is essentially a haunted house movie where both the insides of a corpse and the place it is being examined serve as the source of unexplainable events.
Director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) carefully sets up the first hour of the film, filling it with dread and discomfort. Before we even get to the body, we spend time with the father-and-son duo. Austin’s girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), pays a visit to the morgue, and Tommy explains how coroners would tie bells to the big toe of bodies to make sure they were actually dead as opposed to lying in a coma. Predictably, it serves not only as a macabre sight-gag but a deft piece of foreshadowing.
When Jane Doe arrives, every intimate shot of her lifeless body — her grayed, foggy eyes, open mouth, and bloody nose — proves unsettling. Øvredal adopts a clinical lens for these scenes, skirting the feeling of the subject’s body being pillaged for exploitative purposes. Olwen Catherine Kelly may indeed give the best performance in the film. The role of Jane Doe actually going to an actress, as opposed to a CGI creation, or a prop, gives her presence a lived-in quality. Her life had a story, and unpacking it without her filling in the gaps proves to be a figurative and literal mess.
Goldberg and Naing keep the banter between Cox and Hirsch going steadily. These two men develop a familial chemistry in no time, as they’re both actors who can sometimes fade into the background when put up against a stacked cast.
Like many horror films, The Autopsy of Jane Doe‘s setup proves greater than its climax, which descends into commonplace haunted house tropes. By doing so, it loses the delicate character-work, and the explanation of Jane Doe’s current state is glossed over to the point that a part of me couldn’t help but feel robbed. Thankfully, Øvredal, Goldberg, and Naing together install enough suspense and good will that the comparatively sound-and-light finale can be marginally forgiven. It’s the images of the body, and the dissection of it, that will remain in our brains anyway.
NOTE: As of this writing, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is streaming on Tubi, free of charge, and on Hulu and Shudder, with a subscription.
Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Catherine Kelly, and Ophelia Lovibond. Directed by: André Øvredal.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!