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Autopsy of Jane Doe, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Worth cutting into to see what's inside."
4 stars

I expect a bit too much precision and consistency from horror movies in the best of circumstances, preferring that every element pull in the same direction, at least symbolically, even when I know that unpredictability and confusion is part of what makes them scary. Making a film about an autopsy, right from the very title, is only going to encourage that, leading me to nitpick "The Autopsy of Jane Doe" while the credits rolled. And though there certainly are things that could hang together better, it would be a mistake to focus on them at the expense of an exceptionally tense, intriguing, and well-executed thriller.

The Jane Doe that arrives at the funeral home that also serves as the local coroner’s office arrives at night, the result of another investigation, and while the county sheriff (Michael McElhatton) doesn’t like to impose, time is precious when investigating suspicious deaths. Coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) doesn’t mind too much; he’s a widower who has always retreated into his macabre work. He even tells son and assistant Austin (Emile Hirsch) to go have fun with his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovlibond) as planned, but he decides to stay, meeting up with her later. This may be a bad decision - a lot of things about this corpse don’t add up, and as the Tildens try to figure out exactly who she is and how she died, the sense of unease seems to permeate the building with a lot more strange noises and things in the corners of their eyes not seeming right.

The investigation of all this is what drives the action, and writers Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing give director Andre Overdal a nifty path to follow. This sort of forensic horror can be a minefield, not just because it actively encourages a viewer to poke holes in something that by its nature does not fit in a rational universe, but because it also runs the risk of being frustrating by moving the finish line every time a solution seems to be in view or getting there and finding that what’s left is no longer mysterious and scary. Jane Doe does occasionally stumble in this regard - the repetition of a certain song is creepy when it starts playing in the mortuary, for instance, but doesn’t actually fit in the story that eventually emerges. Anachronistic details aside, though, what the autopsy serves up is impressively tantalizing: Not only is it fun to watch Tommy follow the trail of clues Sherlock Holmes-style, but even as Jane’s mysteries become stranger and more contradictory, they seldom seem entirely out of reach. As a bonus, the very work of uncovering them has a certain resonance - these two men are meaning well, but the way that they are digging into this woman’s body could take center stage if the filmmakers wanted to adjust their perspective just a bit.

They’ve got other themes to mine, though - this film is, at its heart, about the pull exerted by the past and the dead. Tommy doesn’t really talk about Austin’s mother that much, but he doesn’t have to; there’s not even talk of him being with someone else or even leaving the building. Brian Cox doesn’t overplay his being sad or lonely, instead making Tommy a curmudgeon, prickly, his neediness covered by the demanding way he talks to his son, not quite projecting guilt, but implying that Austin isn’t ready to leave. It’s not mean or passive-aggressive - you can tell from how there’s never much anger to the way Emile Hirsch plays the younger TIlden; he’s drawn to his dad, concerned, a little nervous about potentially telling him that he’s ready to leave and go elsewhere. That he doesn’t means he gets drawn into a situation that threatens to consume, reaching back further into the past than the situation would initially indicate.

For all that, it’s got to execute, and Andre Overdal and company do an excellent job with that. He knows when to make an autopsy scene clinical enough to potentially draw the curious in and when it should unnerve even the less squeamish, and how to get the details right for each one. Without getting a formal tour, the audience soon gets the feel for how the place is laid out, not quite making it claustrophobic by bringing in the walls but with hallways always seeming to lead back to the examination room at the center of the basement - or, more ominously, the furnace. The environment sets the tone, and Overdal makes sure that tone stays ominous, especially since he doesn’t have a large brace of characters to whittle down.

No, it’s an intimate little horror movie, built to unnerve and maybe wriggle just a little bit deeper into its viewers’ heads as well. Like a lot in that genre, it’s easy to pick at it and maybe come up with something that doesn’t quite fit, but there aren’t many that turn out to be quite so good at getting past that and hitting that part of the brain that makes one just a little more intrigued and unnerved as well as ready to jump.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30754&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/04/17 13:06:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2016 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Monster Fest For more in the 2016 Monster Fest series, click here.

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USA
  21-Dec-2016 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  02-May-2017 (MA)




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