It’s just another day at the morgue when an unidentified body rolls in. Father/son mortician team Austin (Emile Hirsch) and Tony (Brian Cox) Tilden have seen their fair share of strange subjects over the years, and no matter how misleading the clues presented proved to be, they always dug in, cracked the rib cage, and cracked the case. However, on this particularly gloomy day, deep down in that dark, cramped basement, the two men find that not only are they unable to find a cause of death for their latest corpse, their Jane Doe, but they also can’t find any substantial proof that their little living dead girl should even be deceased, at all.
As the storm outside slowly brews and grows stronger, so too does the case inside grow stranger and stranger. Scarring of the lungs, damage to the brain, and yet, her skin appears unscathed, as if she had never been harmed. Foggy eyes, lack of rigor mortis, yet she was discovered buried deep within the dirt of a tucked away dirty old basement. How long has this girl even been dead? A day? A week? An hour? They’ve never let a case stop them from doing their jobs before, but if things continue down this eerie path, this foolproof family unit might not even leave the premises with their lives.
Told over the course of a single evening in a tightly confined space, The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes on the risk of losing material quickly and possibly even boring the audience by limiting themselves to such constricted means. Luckily, thanks to the superb talents of long overdue tag team Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, and the superior direction from Trollhunter filmmaker Andre Ovredal, the audience not only stays engaged throughout the film, but actually grows more and more enticed as the twists and turns are exhumed and brought to light. The film bounces back and forth from creepy unsettling moments to light-hearted (albeit surprisingly demented) chuckles with ease, giving its viewers a pretty solid idea of what it must be like to work with dead people for a living, and the type of humor that would develop as a defense mechanism for the daily macabre encounters one would face.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe would be a successful film just based off of its confident direction and spectacular cinematography from Roman Osin alone, but its emotional tie-in about the recent death in the Tilden’s own family, the lady of the house, really seals the deal. The loss of Austin’s mother and Tony’s wife adds a layer to this already intricate story by placing the burden on these men to find out exactly what happened to their Jane Doe, to track down her killers, and provide this woman with some sort of justice. Maybe if they can save her, in some warped vicarious way, they can inadvertently save their lost loved one too, and ease some of their own suffering in the process. It’s somewhat of a played out notion, the idea of cathartic retribution, but Brian Cox is so phenomenal in his portrayal of the emotionally distant grieving widower that he’s somehow able to find new ground in the familiar, thereby proving once again that he’s still one of the best working actors in the business today.