Autopsies are fantastic for movies. The deliberate pace of an autopsy, unlocking facts step-by-step, allows for the unspooling of important plot information. And, since the doctor is busy cracking ribs, pulling organs and manipulating a gruesome corpse, there’s a visual counterpoint missing in other varieties of exposition. There’s no need for allusion or subtext or any vagueness whatsoever in an autopsy. Even in the most supernatural story, where truth stands on uncertain and shaky ground, the autopsy reveals stark fact. Autopsies allowed Clarice Starling some of her most crucial insights into Buffalo Bill (and, surrounded by indignant cops, the fragility of the male ego). For every scene of Mulder solely witnessing a supernatural something, there’s an autopsy for Scully to carve some real facts out of a weird body. It doesn’t hurt that the on-screen autopsy comes preloaded with other resonances: the inevitability of death, the mundanity of our flesh, the arcane mysteries and mastery of medical knowledge.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe understands all these appeals, playing upon them expertly for a crackling medical horror-mystery. But somewhere after the halfway point, Autopsy of Jane Doe forgets its own rules and collapses into a rushed and unsatisfactory end.
While there are secondary characters, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is entirely about the relationship between a father-son coroner team as they investigate a very strange corpse found buried in the basement of a crime scene. Though their conflicts are rote — a father distant after the loss of his wife and a son who wants out of the family business — the combo of Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) and Brian Cox (every and any movie) is one of those low-key perfect pairings that’d be absorbing in any scenario. And so watching Tommy Tilden (Cox) berate his idealistic son about the limits of medical knowledge (and the difference between bare facts and capital-T truth) is absolutely delightful. As they find weirder and weirder distortions in the body of Jane Doe — her lungs are burnt, her organs scratched, her skin unmarred — we watch their slide from the routines of medical examination to supernatural paranoia with our dread perfectly synced to theirs.
But then Jane Doe unleashes a portion of her true power, awakening other corpses and pushing the Tildens out of the examination room and into the basement labyrinth of their funeral home. The movie leaves behind the deliberate investigation and the satisfactions of following a medical mystery, but works well for a few more scenes. The Autopsy of Jane Doe director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) proves his mastery over horror storytelling. Taut sequences of carefully orchestrated scares retask elements of both eery prestige horror like The Haunting and splatter-fun classics like Re-Animator.
So it’s disappointing when The Autopsy of Jane Doe fumbles the ending. At their lowest — one of those obligatory, boring scenes where characters get a quiet, confessional moment — the turn becomes clear: the autopsy has gotten away from them and their only option is to reimpose scientific order on the madness. It’s the right move narratively, but the conclusion feels rushed, with Tommy gushing out wild, half-evidenced extrapolations that his character would have rightfully scorned just 45 minutes earlier in the movie. The sanctity of the autopsy scene is compromised, turning from rigorous procedural to more standard thriller logic, like if Foucault’s Pendulum shaded into The Da Vinci Code.
While it sputters at the end, The Autopsy of Jane Doe proves the continued pleasures of the movie autopsy. There’s no taking away from the simple things: two fantastic character actors carving flesh and muttering medical jargon.