Men don’t understand women. It’s the oldest cliché in comedy, in psychology, in men’s and women’s health magazines alike, and in nearly every book Dave Barry has ever written. In André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the cliché is no less clichéd, but he does appropriate it for use in a powerful metaphor for male blindness to female traumas: The film is about a woman’s invisible suffering, the kind experienced beneath her exterior and which men can neither see nor grasp, even when they have the benefit of being able to literally peel back her layers. You can probably guess from the title exactly what layers are being peeled, which is to say that you’ll probably know right off the bat whether The Autopsy of Jane Doe is for you or not.
What you won’t discover without watching the film is the source of Jane’s anguish, though once Øvredal has had his say, you may regret that you’d never looked close enough to learn the truth for yourself. We meet Jane (Olwen Kelly)as the story opens: She’s found by the police, buried in the basement of a house where the occupants have been inexplicably massacred, like lambs shepherded to an abrupt slaughter. Unlike the late homeowners, Jane is in pristine condition, a flawless mystery for the lawmen to puzzle over. There isn’t a single wound written on her flesh, nor any sign of decay. So the sheriff (Michael McElhatton) sends her to Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden, a father-son coroner team, in hopes they can determine a cause of death before the morning, and just like that, we’re off to the ghastliest of races.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe doesn’t take its time, exactly, but it isn’t an amusement park ride either. Øvredal is swimming in a different pool than he did in his last film, 2010’s Trollhunter, a found-footage bureaucratic satire that plops unwitting university kids smack dab in the world of trolls and the government agents who hunt them. The change in aesthetic isn’t even the most significant detail that separates Trollhunter from The Autopsy of Jane Doe, though it’s certainly the most noticeable: What makes the latter stand out from the former is tone. Gone is Øvredal’s cheek and his black sense of humor. Gone is the thrilling immediacy of the found-footage niche. Rather than make another spoof about red tape, occasionally interrupted by monster attacks, he has made a film about melancholic helplessness.
Tommy and Austin are both still dealing with the passing of Mrs. Tilden, who struggled to cope with her depression until she couldn’t struggle any longer. “Dealing” is, perhaps, too nondescript a word. “Reeling” is closer to it, though neither Tommy nor Austin wears their anguish over her loss too prominently on their sleeves. Austin wants to talk about it. Tommy won’t. And in the meantime, they have Jane to work on, and they do, slicing her open and relieving her of her organs, though the further they break her body down, the more impossibilities they stumble upon, including interior injuries so severe that they should reflect on her exterior form. That they do not is perplexing for the Tildens at first, until their confusion eventually gives way to pure terror.
Perhaps it’s unfair to say that The Autopsy of Jane Doe lacks Trollhunter’s playfulness: Even with her skin pulled back, her chest sliced open, and her insides exposed, they remain utterly confounded by the incomprehensible woman lying on the slab before them, and if it’s likely that Øvredal didn’t quite mean that as a joke, there’s morbid wit to the film’s allegory anyways. Suffice to say that The Autopsy of Jane Doe fits snugly within the overarching sub-theme of 2016’s horror cinema, though speaking to that in specifics would ruin its series of reveals, which begin as soon as the autopsy begins and continue right up to its parting image.
The film’s premise and action sound icky on paper, and they read as icky in practice. But for a movie where two men stare perplexed at a deceased woman’s naked body, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is remarkably graceful, and even respectful of it eponymous character. Øvredal can’t help that his gaze is male, so he takes great pains to deemphasize his film’s inherent creep factor through use of the camera, often filming Kelly at angles that protect her rather than leave her perversely exposed, which has the effect of enhancing her superb performance. In the very niche category of “Best Actor Portraying a Corpse,” Kelly represents stiff (pun 100% intended) competition for Daniel Radcliffe, who played dead in June’s Swiss Army Man. Her work is less visible, in that she has no lines and makes no movement over the course of the film’s duration, but it’s in many ways more accomplished: It takes immense talent to alternately convey vulnerability and superiority while holding the same facial expression for eighty minutes.
Oh, and Cox and Hirsch aren’t bad, either. They’re actually great, instantly vibing as parent and child the first moment they appear on screen together and maintaining that bond from start to finish. (For Game of Thrones fans, hearing McElhatton, better known as Roose Bolton, sing “Open Up Your Heart (And Let The Sun Shine In)” may be the film’s best delight.) But the men are each overshadowed by Kelly, who commands the room even when Øvredal’s focus is elsewhere in the frame. But maybe that’s appropriate. Jane, after all, is the focal point Øvredal lets his plot pivot on, and ultimately we come to appreciate her with a clarity that Tommy and Austin both attain too late. Maybe the question isn’t whether men can understand women, but whether they can understand women when it matters most.
Director: André Øvredal
Writer: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.