For three generations in Grantham, Virginia, the Tildens have owned and operated the local morgue and crematorium. Tony (Brian Cox) has been showing his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) the ropes, but he’s not too excited to carry on with the family business. His girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) is ready for him to come clean with his father and Austin is close to mustering up the courage to tell him.
After a long day at work, Austin and Emma are planning to head out to the movies when the local sheriff drops in with a new body. It’s an anonymous “Jane Doe” found buried in the basement at the site of a home invasion. The cops at the crime scene can’t figure out what happened, saying that it looks like the other victims “were trying to break out” of the house. Sheriff Sheldon needs a cause of death for the Jane Doe body before he can fully report on the case to the press. He asks Tony and Austin to work into the night to tell him what really happened to her.
Tony is a self-professed traditionalist. He is less concerned with the crime scene details and more interested in nailing down the exact specifics that led to death. Each step of trying to uncover the story behind Jane Doe’s demise leads farther down a path of confusion.
This is the English-language debut for “Troll Hunter” director Andre Ovredal. He masterfully manages a foreboding sense of dread as each new secret comes to light during the autopsy. Not for the squeamish, the procedures in the film are detailed in a very graphic manner as the potentially ritualistic murder of this woman is slowly revealed.
To say much more would spoil the film’s surprises, but it’s fair to say that it hits all the right notes. Not only is the story clever, but the performances from Cox and Hirsch absolutely take it to the next level. As a powerful storm rolls in and the power starts to flicker, these actors elevate what could’ve been a simple genre exercise into something far more effective and truly terrifying.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” plays again at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday at 9 p.m. It has been acquired by IFC Midnight and is expected to be released in late December.