Performing an autopsy doesn’t typically spring to mind as a father-son bonding activity, and “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” won’t do much to change that. Even so, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch make a case for keeping it in the family as morticians in André Øvredal’s (“Trollhunter”) slow-burning horror film, which suggests that the apprentice model may not be dead after all — even if its practitioners are at death’s door.
With a basement workspace flanked by family photos and wood paneling, dad (Cox) quizzes junior (Hirsch) about the cause of death of a corpse burnt beyond recognition the way others might test their kid’s mastery of the multiplication table. “Everybody has a secret,” Cox says in something like a mission statement. “Some are just better at hiding it than others.”
Hirsch’s response speaks to their differing philosophies: “Some are better at finding it.” Pops isn’t much for figuring out the why of any of this — that’s for the police, he insists — only the how; as he’s quick to remind his son’s girlfriend, who’s curious to see her first dead body, “I’m a traditionalist.”
This droll wit serves “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” well. The film is never as anonymous as its title, but it still doesn’t prepare father and son for their next client: The eponymous cadaver is wheeled in late one night with nary a hint as to who she might be or how she expired. Immediately, her case is puzzling: peat under her fingernails and toenails, ankles and wrists shattered, tongue crudely cut out. None of her external trauma is reflected externally; on the outside, she’s perfectly preserved.
To remind us that this is a horror film and not a docudrama, Øvredal occasionally interrupts his two leads’ by-the-book procedure with familiar haunted-house trappings: creepy songs on the radio, a looming storm, the unexplained death of a pet (RIP). As Jane Doe’s torturous passing begins to look more and more ritualistic, so too does the film itself — turns out this isn’t just another night at the office.
As it strays from its cerebral conception, however, “Jane Doe” runs the risk of losing sight of what makes it compelling in the first place: What’s the point of exhaustively detailing the real-life work that goes into a post-mortem if the answer is going to be strictly supernatural?
Øvredal’s close-quarters thriller is still a cut above most horror flicks, especially the jump-scare-heavy fare that tends to be dumped into multiplexes this time of year. That’s thanks in large part to Cox and Hirsch, who are a far cry from the cannon fodder we usually see served up to masked slashers; they add depth and dimension to the mystery they’re trying to unravel, even and especially as they unwittingly become part of it.
Special mention is also owed to actress Olwen Kelly who, in the title role, is preternaturally unnerving without ever moving a muscle or speaking a word. She’s always there, slightly out of focus in the background as Cox and Hirsch confer among themselves as to what’s happening, and Øvredal uses her presence to compelling effect. Like most others in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” the corpse’s mere presence is a simple trick done well.