In my Quick Take of The Midnight Meat Train, I defined a Night Movie as ‘A film you discover alone, in the dark, with the sun safely shining 12,000 miles away… sometimes the best way to see a film is alone, at home, at night, when everything is more dangerous.’ Obviously, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But if the idea of a Night Movie appeals to you, then boy have I got a recommendation.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is such a movie. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are father-and-son coroners. Cox inherited the business from his father, and expects Hirsch to continue the family legacy. The stifling nature of the job is getting to Hirsch, however; he plans to leave, but hasn’t yet told the old man.
One night, when the pair should be packing up to leave, the sheriff brings an unidentifiable cadaver by. This is Jane Doe, whom the police found buried in a crime scene, somehow perfectly preserved. Her wrists and ankles are broken, though her skin shows no signs of trauma. Her heart and lungs are scarred, with no known cause. As father and son explore these incongruities, it becomes clear that the only answer may be…supernatural. If this sounds a bit silly, of course it is! The film even has a self-conscious jump-scare at the beginning, just to let you know that what follows is all in good fun.
As you can imagine, the film features frequent nudity from the corpse, and pervasive graphic, disturbing injury detail. However director André Øvredal never uses his grisly images for cheap, gross-out effects, and the nudity is never exploitative. Indeed, he exhibits cool mastery of his technique: As Cox and Hirsch begin the autopsy, note Øvredal’s shot placement and editing rhythm; he knows how to use darkness and silence to great effect. Plot developments are just ridiculous enough to keep the graphic content from being oppressive, but never so ridiculous that it breaks the spell of the movie.
Well, there are a couple things that might break the spell, depending on your personal prejudices. The Autopsy of Jane Doe shifts into supernatural mode quite abruptly for my taste—it almost seems like an important development was cut out to keep the runtime brief. Also, there is a fire burst in the second half so laughably fake I wished they’d just done away with it. But it’s mercifully short.
Emile Hirsch has his boyish charm and affability down pat. His companionable screen presence spectacularly complements Brian Cox, who is somehow menacing and avuncular simultaneously. I loved watching the two of them together; I know it’s probably a pie-in-the-sky idea, but I’d happily welcome another film featuring these two characters.
Look, I don’t want to oversell this movie. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is frivolous—a lark, a jaunt. It’s not art. But if you watch it in the dark, at night, just before bed… it may work on you exactly as intended.