With its long, lingering shots of scalpels slicing into human flesh, hands digging through viscera, and skin peeling away from muscle, director André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe is perhaps cinema’s most comprehensive look at the gruesome business of necropsy since The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes. If Øvredal’s film is considerably less philosophical than Stan Brakhage’s 1971 experimental documentary, the two nonetheless share an inquisitive fascination with the surreal spectacle of human dissection.
Rather than being simply gratuitous, Øvredal’s penchant for gory necropsy finds its natural corollary in Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing’s screenplay, which contrives a mystery in which all the clues are located within the corpse of an unidentified woman (Olwen Kelly). The more a coroner, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), and his son/trainee, Austin (Emile Hirsch), slice her up and dig around in her insides, the deeper the mystery gets. Discovered in the basement of a house where three other people were violently murdered, the body is curiously immaculate, with nary a scratch on its perfectly alabaster skin. But as Tommy and Austin begin to investigate, they find disturbing signs of trauma throughout her interior: a severed tongue, blackened lungs, and a shroud containing one of her own teeth found in her intestines.
Set primarily in Tommy’s shadowy morgue, and featuring a limited cast of characters, the film at first plays like a bottle episode of some mid-aughts CBS procedural—until things begin to take a turn toward the supernatural: ominous radio interference, flickering lights, a dead cat in the air vent. The result is gripping for its slyly ironic merging of grisly forensic analysis and supernatural horror. Øvredal may rely a bit too heavily on jump scares to ratchet up tension, but the film is consistently enlivened by its novel premise and the magnetism of its leads—not just Cox and Hirsch, who deliver gruff, un-showy performances, but also Kelly, who manages to convey subtle shadings of agony, evil, and vengeance while remaining absolutely stock-still.
What The Autopsy of Jane Doe could use, however, is a legitimately satisfying ending. After a steady stream of intriguing hints, the resolution feels blandly familiar, falling back on standard horror-movie tropes that render the story less distinctive and interesting in retrospect. It’s a disappointingly perfunctory conclusion to a tale that seemed to promise a whole lot more.