A family is brutally murdered inside their home. We follow the local sheriff (Michael McElhatton) through the blood-soaked house down to the basement. There, they discover a beautiful, dead, naked woman half buried in the dirt. She is not a member of the family, she has no identification on her, and no one seems to know who she is. Though it is late, they take her to the Tilden house where Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), the county coroner, and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) can perform an autopsy and discover the cause of death. Sheriff says the press will be on his tail soon so they have until morning to figure out just who she is and how she died.
For the first half, it acts like a mysterious chamber piece where the Tildens work inside this ancient, foreboding house meticulously examinining the body, discovering its many secrets. Its a medical examiner’s procedural. Though MEs often feature in crime stories, it's rare that we stay with them for any length of time. I want to live in this film with them. I want these characters in a long-running HBO series. I’d binge watch the hell out of that.
As they perform their exam - thoroughly inspecting the body, peeling back layer after layer of skin, muscle and organs - they become increasingly perplexed. Her skin shows no sign of trauma, not cuts nor bruises, but her bones are broken, her organs cut and battered. She’s been tortured, poisoned, and burned. Something, many things, just don’t add up. As they dig deeper strange occurrences start happening.
Early, the film lets us know that its got horror in its DNA. The tone, the lighting, the cavernous house with its suddenly moving shadows, and certainly the music all point to something more sinister than just another murder mystery. This works well in the background of what starts as a really good thriller but as the scales slide more into the supernatural side of things, it quickly turns into cliche.
This isn’t to say that the horror elements don’t work really well on a base level. There are lots great jump scares and some terrifically staged scenes where I found myself tensing up and holding my breath. But once the scream let out and I relaxed back into my chair, I quickly realized there was nothing behind it. As the mystery of who this woman really is becomes clearer and more supernatural, the less I became interested. It's ultimate conclusion is so dumb I wonder if those pages weren’t hidden from the actors for I hate to think someone as talented as Brian Cox would want to be involved.
For his part, Cox is utterly sublime. He coroner is wise, sardonic, and well past having seen it all. Emile Hirsch as his son and assistant plays off of him extraordinarily well. Though we get scenes where we learn he no longer wants this as a career, their relationship is not one of antagonism, but respect and love.
Troll Hunter director André Øvredal (in his English-language debut) skillfully mixes the procedural elements with the horror (and there’s quite a bit of black humor as well). There is a sure-footedness in what he’s doing that grounds the action even when it borders on the silly.
There’s a lot to recommend about The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The first half is a fascinating, thrilling piece of filmmaking. As it slips more and more into horror, it becomes less interesting but its still filled with good scares. I suspect audiences' enjoyment of it will come down to how much they are willing to put up with the horror genre’s standard bag of tricks.