Death is business as usual at the Tilden Morgue and Crematorium, but it’s a grim day for the Grantham County Police Department, summoned to what is apparently a murder suicide, but what they find in the basement is worse than the two corpses upstairs, the half buried body of a young woman. Beyond a cause of death, father and son morticians Tommy and Austin Tilden are asked to locate any clue to her identity as they perform The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Having completed three post mortems already, Austin had hoped to escape to spend the evening with his girlfriend Emma, but with no ID and her fingerprints not in the system Sheriff Sheldon Burke needs answers quickly, so Austin stays behind to assist his father, an experienced mortician who challenges his son to look behind the obvious in their examinations and who also merciless teases Austin and Emma.
Even with only external examination the oddities are apparent, the body displaying no signs of lividity or rigor but the retinas clouded, indicating death occurred days before. Fractured bones are found in her wrists and ankles, and as the thunder rumbles overhead they proceed with the internal examination, finding pelvic deformities, blackened lungs, internal injuries and scarring with no corresponding external indications.
Directed by Troll Hunter‘s André Øvredal from a script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing it couldn’t be more different from that feature debut which roved across the forests and fjords of Norway. Set almost entirely in the labyrinth of the Tilden Morgue, the camera prowls through the corridors as though it was an unseen watcher even as Austin begins to feel that they are not alone, that there is someone in the parlour with them, that the samples are being tampered with.
Like Lumberton, North Carolina of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Grantham, Virginia presents the facade of a quiet, safe town, but indoors it is a different story. Opening with guns, knives, and blood all over the place even before the narrative transfers to the funeral home mid-examination, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not for the squeamish and the prosthetics are impressively detailed and grimly realised.
An unfolding mystery and the corresponding investigation, it’s apparent that Tommy has seen bad things in his time, while having only been assisting his father for two years Austin hasn’t been exposed so deeply but nevertheless deals without flinching. Together they are accustomed to the environment and shrug off what the audience find increasingly disturbing as the storm closes in on them.
As Tommy and Austin, An Adventure in Space and Time‘s Brian Cox and Lords of Dogtown‘s Emile Hirsch play well together and bring formidable experience to what is almost a two-hander, but special mention also goes to the ever-present Olwen Kelly, mocking with her blank expression, saying nothing with her dead mouth, seeing nothing with her dead eyes, but never out of mind.
Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ soundtrack occasionally reminds of Mark Snow’s endless piano accompaniments to autopsies and lab reports of his many X-Files, the particular episode in question being Millennium, and at almost exactly the half way mark the film spectacularly twists into a new shape and promptly collapses into the nonsense of flickering lights and jamming doors which doesn’t live up the uniqueness of the first half, a predictable and unsatisfyingly conventional horror which could and should have been so much more.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is released in cinemas on Friday 31st March, digitally on 19th June and DVD/VOD 26th June