Ends up bloated and lifeless.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe falls into the cinematic pitfall of wasting an intriguing premise and well-crafted setup on a woefully contrived third act. In doing so, the English-language debut of André Øvredal takes a unique scenario—in which horror unfolds in a clinical setting where it can be placed under a literal microscope—and blows it up with jump-scares, flickering lights and all manner of run-of-the-mill genre tropes. What makes a postmortem evaluation of this film especially grim is that Øvredal had previously taken a well-worn genre exercise and breathed new life into it with the found-footage gem Trollhunter. Not so with Jane Doe, which deteriorates into exposition-laden nonsense possessing the subtlety of a chainsaw.
Øvredal initially uses a skilled hand to deftly subvert expectations about a film set in the familiar horror backdrop of a morgue. The sense of skin-crawling dread builds not as a result of anything that overtly manifests, but rather due to unnatural phenomena that must be sought after and uncovered. While investigating a gruesome multiple murder, police discover a pristine body half-buried in the cellar. The woman’s corpse doesn’t fit with the rest of the scene: she has no apparent connection to the other victims and there’s not a single scratch on her body. Later that night, the father-son mortician duo of Tommy and Austin Tilden (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) are tasked by police with quickly determining a cause of death because the public can only handle murder when it can be explained.
Jane Doe works best when the horror smolders rather than rages, with the Tildens uncovering one bizarre and inexplicable medical finding after another as they peel back the layers of the corpse. Her wrists and ankles are shattered but show no external signs of trauma. Her lungs are burned to a crisp even though, outwardly, her lips remain spotless and her skin pearlescent. Nothing adds up and, the further the Tildens dig, the more unexplainable the occurrences that begin to grip the dim catacomb hallways of the mortuary. Early on, it’s easy to overlook the contrivances—few clinical settings would ever be kept so shadow-strewn, for example—especially when Tommy admits to such antiquated practices as tying a bell to each corpse’s foot, which makes for an effective device later in the film as things begin to go bump in the night. But the rising tension soon breaks through the levy as Øvredal drowns his film in heavy exposition and unrealistic connecting-of-the-dots in between episodes of such cheap and familiar scares as a close-up of a ghoul screaming through a sewn-shut mouth.
Few horror films in recent memory have squandered a solid setup as thoroughly as The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Øvredal doesn’t seem to trust his audience to infer anything for themselves. And despite workmanlike performances, Cox and Hirsch can’t reanimate the limp, expository dialogue of characters that somehow quickly jump to the correct conclusions despite the ludicrous and unimaginative answer to the film’s central question. Despite an auspicious beginning, The Autopsy of Jane Doe ends up bloated and lifeless.