Surveillance Review

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by Mark Botwright Aug 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Surveillance Review
    Being the child of an esteemed director can clearly be a troubling task for any progeny looking to follow in their parent's footsteps. Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of body horror maestro David Lynch, received such a critical mauling for her 1993 debut Boxing Helena that it has taken her fifteen years to return to her place behind the camera. Surveillance is a fittingly offbeat affair considering her familial links to all things weird, twisted and distinctly unfathomable. It tells the tale of two FBI agents, played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, who roll into a small backwater town in America to investigate the aftermath of a serial killer's bloody rampage.

    It was always likely to be hard for Lynch to escape comparisons with the work of her famed father but in truth she has done herself no favours by the choices she has made in terms of this film. The most obvious similarity to many will be the actors involved, with Pullman notably turning in an incredible turn as the bewildering Fred Madison in Lynch senior's Lost Highway and Ormond starring only recently in his 2006 thriller Inland Empire. Add to this the fact that her father also appears as an Executive Producer on this project, the result is a film that, before the first frame has appeared on screen, is somewhat easier for naysayers to dismiss as a nepotistic homage, which is a shame for any film-maker to be burdened with. Clearly, many viewers will be looking for a clear and distinct voice to come from this feature, that doesn't play safely with themes that have already been explored by her father, a situation that brings with it both good and bad news.

    The story itself is a fairly gripping premise and there is a neat sidestep from the straightforward FBI serial killer chase flicks that follow a well trodden and formulaic path. With most films, the focus of the narrative is the hunt for the guilty party and the bloody events start to unfold as the pursuers gain ground on their target. Here, Lynch throws us in at the deep end, with some of the killings happening right at the beginning, to set the scene. Much of the rest of the tale is told in the form of flashbacks, as three survivors of the crazed maniacs have spent the night at the local police station in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the agents to arrive and record what happened. The fly in the ointment for the FBI investigators is that all three have different ways of imparting their knowledge and much of the truth is hidden amongst well laid lies. The three differing perspectives is a clever angle and adds much to what could have been a linear plot, but unfortunately too much emphasis has been placed on it and it doesn't bear the weight of significant scrutiny. It works as a hook, something to entice a potential viewer in with, but once analysed, it appears to be more of a MacGuffin rather than an ingenious creation that will skew the story. The occasional mentioning of such masterworks as Rashomon also doesn't allow for favourable comparisons, as though Kurosawa's classic contained one story, seen from different angles, with lies or perhaps misinterpretations and misremembered details scattered throughout, Surveillance merely shows us the true stories of the witnesses during flashback sequences and then confronts us with lies they proceed to tell the authorities. This wouldn't necessarily be such a stick with which to beat the film, were it not for the emphasis that has been levied upon this facet of the story. The three cameras placed within the interrogation rooms which Pullman's character watches over, the little girl who looks at a mural and switches eyes to see it slightly differently whilst drawing - these are key themes and the pivot on which all are hinged upon is sadly decidedly shaky.

    The other selling point that has been splashed over all reviews and even the Blu-ray cover is that of a twist to the tale. Personally I prefer my cinematic experiences to come as a surprise and as such I wasn't overly pleased to see such information emblazoned so brazenly but if it increases sales then I guess it will have done its job. I'm obviously going to skirt around specifics of this supposedly revelatory moment but that doesn't stop me from being able to impart my own opinion on its efficacy to astound viewers. The groundwork is fairly well laid, as the three witnesses have been held together in the same room all night so we can expect their stories to have amalgamated to a certain degree, thus potentially hiding one large lie that would have the desired effect of this much lauded twist. I'm choosing my words carefully here, but suffice it to say, the logistics of the reveal fail to pan out and this set-up is slick but flawed. I would concur with some that this moment is indeed a juggernaut, but not because, as some would affirm, it hits hard and flattens the audience, but instead because it can be seen trundling towards you from a mile away. The acting, if anything, actually aids the viewer to see this all the more clearly, as key scenes littered throughout the duration, which attempt to masquerade as filler, only seem to point in one direction. Ormond and Pullman aren't the only players to raise this piece from its low budget roots though, as the standout performance has to be that of French Stewart (still perhaps best known for his role of Harry in the TV sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun) who vacillates perfectly between everyman cop and insidiously creepy with consummate ease. Less of a subtle turn is put in by his on screen partner (and co-writer alongside Jennifer Lynch) as played by Kent Harper, who is purposefully insane, yet also manages to come across as somewhat hammy. Luckily, this intentional push towards the offbeat and weirder characters is finely balanced against the role of a softly spoken and timid girl (one of the three witnesses), brought to the screen by surely a name to look out for, Ryan Simpkins. Her assured and understated portrayal of an observant child is one of the few truly exemplary features of this film.

    What we have, once all is said and done, is a thriller that holds onto a couple of key hooks, intended to draw out its appeal. It casts its net fairly wide thanks to these facets as not only will horror/thriller fans be lured in, but also those with a more cerebral bent, intent on pitting their wits against that of the film-makers in order to unravel the multiple threads that are supposed to be woven within. Unfortunately, the aforementioned threads are as straight as an arrow and other than the assumption that the sheer weirdness of it all might throw up something truly enigmatic, the twist is not the revelation some might have you believe. It still shocks and it isn't for nothing that Lynch won the best director award at the New York City Horror Film Festival (the first female to do so), but I'm afraid that probably speaks more to the level of the modern horror than her brilliance as a director. There are some nice shots within, but the 2.35:1 frame is rarely filled with anything that could be described as greatly artistic, only the exterior vistas of Mid-West American cornfields and a stretching sky come close to warranting a wide aspect ratio. The pacing holds your attention for a fair while, but once you come to the realisation that the stories of the characters are distinctly linear, the need to concentrate wanes, with only the lauded twist keeping you focussed. The violence is shocking and falls squarely into the category of unsettling and sadistic, but for large amounts of the duration there is little in the way of real gore, feeling more akin to Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, but lacking the punch of the characters from that shocker. There is weirdness from wall to wall and the experience may disturb the faint of heart but once watched, the need to review becomes distinctly diminished once the logistical faults and implausibility of certain scenes are pondered on. Whereas her father fashions absurd visions that seem to be without reason but upon further reflection may have patterns within, I'm afraid Jennifer Lynch seems to have created something that poses as complex but is in fact straightforward and even at points without reason. There's a visceral punch for those looking simply to be swept along, but it's far from the thoughtful nightmare some have suggested. It's a genre piece, replete with blood, thrill killers and characters marked as fodder; it's slick in places but not as polished as it first appears.

    The Rundown

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