It’s been a decade since Jennifer Lynch, daughter of noted filmmaker David Lynch, made her directorial debut with the wildly divisive Boxing Helena, and her return behind the camera, the thriller Surveillance, has on the surface the trappings of something much more traditional and straightforward. Naturally, though, because it’s filtered through the younger Lynch’s canted, nurture-influenced prism of warped “normality” and co-existing extremes, there’s a ghoulish, off-kilter quality to the proceedings. A sort of dread-heavy, wholly engaging partial misfire — the film feels awkwardly stitched together, and it ultimately bites off more than it can chew — Surveillance still tackles a provocative premise: that truly nasty violence can be birthed from wildly different sources, even marginal places of flattened affect, proper order and limited means.
The story centers around FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman), who are dispatched to a ghostly highway town to investigate a string of grisly unsolved homicides. The chief witness is a nine-year-old girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), who saw her family murdered in the open daylight by a pair of masked marauders. Other participants in the trauma include tweaker Bobbi (Pell James, above left) and her equally spun-out boyfriend (newcomer Mac Miller), Ryan’s older brother and parents (Cheri Oteri and Hugh Dillon), and two sociopathic cops (French Stewart and co-writer Kent Harper) who twistedly assert their authority over random passersby by shooting out their tires and engaging in self-satisfied games of psychological manipulation. As Elizabeth and Sam partition the survivors and query each one with the assistance of closed-circuit video units, the bulk of the rest of the film unfolds in this flashback structure, studded with lies and whitewashes absolving participants of culpability.
Four-plus minutes into Surveillance, we’ve glimpsed a coffee percolator in close-up, as well as inter-departmental law enforcement friction the sort of which marked Twin Peaks and its film prequel. A bit later antlers are glimpsed on a wall, and we also see a fetishistic depiction and almost orgiastic enjoyment of cigarettes. In other words, there’s plenty of markers to link back to some of Lynch’s father’s favorite visual touchstones. There are some definite flashes of dark humor, too. Still, this isn’t merely Lynch Lite — there’s a transgressive foreboding largely unchecked and unbalanced by virginal positivity — and anyone investing too much energy into a direct, biologically correlative reading will eventually come to a wheels-spinning resting place.
Lynch’s film is most evocative of her father’s work in the broadest sense; there’s inherent risk and verve in the project, despite a narrative premise that on the surface seems simple, and possessing of a certain doom-glam cachet. Lynch does a good job juggling the movie’s puzzlebox qualities, and its third act features a boffo twist, the extra-narrative implications of which are a pleasure to swirl around in your mind. Yet Surveillance doesn’t quite fully add up, or completely align, both because it feels slightly off in its editing and construction, and because some of its characters remain ciphers. It’s in this sense that the film is a misfire, albeit one you wouldn’t trade for more conventionally telegraphed American indie product.
Its hiccups and unravelling are more sins of excited commission than laziness, and don’t mitigate the weird pleasures of Surveillance‘s cross-cast performances, with experienced comedic performers Oteri and Stewart going dark places and Ormond playing more cool and kinky than perhaps we’ve ever seen from her before. The film looks fantastic, too. Working on the Saskatchewan plains of Canada with cinematographer Peter Wunstorf (the second unit director of photography on Brokeback Mountain), Lynch crafts a work of spare desperation, where unchained menace blows in with the wind. In the end, just pondering that fact may be more chilling than the laboriously crafted backstories of a new crop of backward-looking horror slashers. (Magnet, R, 97 minutes)