The know-it-alls on “CSI” always acted like they were the last word on gritty forensics and the macabre. Those TV glamourpusses never caught a case as gnarly as the one we’re shown in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” a lean indie horror flick that manages to creep us out even before getting to the part that’s meant to be truly unsettling.
Norwegian director Andre Ovredal casts Emile Hirsch as Austin Tilden, a guy who’s remarkably well adjusted for all the time he spends helping to run the morgue that his family has operated for three generations. Oh, and did he mention that they conduct their business in the family homestead’s dank, wood-paneled basement? Austin’s somber dad, Tommy (Brian Cox), isn’t exactly a Charles Addams type either, even if he is more wrapped up in the minutiae of what they do — not because he’s intimately interested, like Will Smith in “Concussion,” just very thorough.
Father and son prep for a late night after local authorities deliver the body of an unidentified young woman mysteriously unearthed at the scene of an unrelated (?) multiple murder. The ensuing, extended slicing and sawing turns up one bizarre finding after another. (Model Olwen Kelly deserves an honorable mention for all the time she spends on the slab, sporting nothing but ashen makeup.) Tongue missing? Maybe the poor wretch bit it off. Ankles shattered without the usual signs of trauma? Tommy saw that once in a human-trafficking case.
The deeper they probe, the more our queasiness grows. But just as we’re wondering if Ovredal plans to get an entire movie out of this — and impressively, it seems like he might — the Tildens finally exhaust their supply of medical explanations. Which is also right about when their easy-listenin’ radio goes crazy, as do the lights and the story’s whole direction. After the soundtrack’s sly use of the ’50s cowpoke-pop tune “Open Up Your Heart,” we’ll never be able to hear Pebbles Flintstone’s cover the same way again.
Cox’s talk of quiet, suppressed sorrow is a comparatively awkward fit, given how the script undercooks such elements. Hirsch’s restless-hearts arc with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) is another dead end. Still, the relationship is a useful device for outlining morgue basics (and hiding spots), as narratively nimble in its way as production design that goes heavy on concave mirrors to distort perception. Aesthetically, Ovredal is no stiff.
★ ★ ★
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
Directed by André Ovredal. Written by Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing. Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond. At the Brattle. 86 minutes. R (bloody horror violence, unsettling grisly images, graphic nudity, language).