Surveillance. 2008. Directed by Jennifer Lynch. Screenplay by Lynch & Kent Harper.
Starring Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond, French Stewart, Ryan Simpkins, Cheri Oteri, Charlie Newmark, Shannon Jardine, Pell James, Michael Ironside, Kent Harper, Gill Gayle, Mac Miller, Caroline Aaron, & Hugh Dillon. Lago Film/See Film/Film Star Pictures.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch has followed in the large footsteps of her father, not exactly on the same path but a similar one. Her 1993 debut Boxing Helena was not well received, nor did it really gain a cult following later on; I’m a fan, although I do understand why people don’t dig the film. It was tough to digest and her directing style hadn’t yet solidified, obviously just her first time out as director. I consider it a horrific metaphor for the male gaze and its will for control.
It was fifteen years later she gave us Surveillance. It begins as a simple cops-versus-serial killer-thriller involving a bunch of people who come together in a small town police station after tragedy strikes along the highway. Later, it becomes something far more sinister. Lynch doesn’t opt for the existential-type film her father David does so well. Here, the style is straight forward. The storytelling is the key here. Where other films with this mix of drama, crime, and horror might take a simple road, Lynch weaves through the cracks of the various characters lives, dissecting truth from lies and leading us to a savage conclusion.
Maybe it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I just can’t deny a well written and executed piece of cinema that has suspense, tension, plus an interesting twist right before the end. Lynch went on to do more interesting movies after this one, not making us wait another decade and a half again this time. Part of why I love the movie is that the script doesn’t necessarily hide everything, the big twist. It does, and doesn’t all at once. Sure, you can go back and pick out all the moments where we could’ve previously unlocked the secrets. If you pay attention closely, the first time around it’s all there to chow on. Like when Pullman and Ormond’s characters are sitting in the car before going into the police station. There are some great bits in this short scene. From there it only gets better. As the plot gets closer to the finish you can, possibly, start to see where everything’s headed. If anybody says they “guessed it” at the star they’re liars. This plays as a nice dramatic horror with no frills for the longest time. Until Lynch and co-writer (as well as one of the film’s actors) Kent Harper flip every last thing we know on its head.
The characters make the story totally worth it, from Pullman and Ormond with their FBI agents, to Kent Harper as one angry (and fairly morally vacant) police officer, to the various people along that lonely stretch of road from Hugh Dillon to the always enjoyable Michael Ironside. The best part is how everybody who survived to tell their story at the precinct tells slight-to-fairly large lies about what they were doing before shit hit the fan. All except for the little girl, whose character is as interesting as any of the grownups.
Just the screenplay itself and how it’s laid out works for me. The story gets told in flashbacks mostly leading up to the reveal of truth in the finale. However, what I dig is that we get to see exactly who tells the truth, or how they tell it. Nobody is safe from scrutiny. Once the finale comes down and we understand everything with clearer eyes, we see how the truth’s been manipulated on all ends, with no exception. The story twists together with all the characters and their various truths like the braids in a knot tightening. Truly an excellently written screenplay with strong storytelling.
The ensemble cast really does work wonders. I mean, even French Stewart is spot on as the other half of a nasty cop duo with Harper. Both of them make things interesting, especially in the big sequence after everybody’s stopped on the highway, as we see the story in flashback. Everyone is on par, too. Cheri Oteri and Hugh Dillon make an awesome couple, the kids hold up their end, as well. Particularly that little girl, Ryan Skimpkins – she makes that role stand out amongst all the adults, which gives the end even better impact with her doing such good work.
Of course, the main two that help Surveillance float along perfectly are Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond. They’re offbeat, strange. You immediately feel their chemistry together, as their FBI characters roll into the tiny town in order to figure out what’s been going on with two serial killers roaming from state to state, killing anybody in their path. Ormond gives Elizabeth a sense of having lost the chance at motherhood, or perhaps a woman who wants to have that but because of her lifestyle simply cannot. Regardless of which it is, Ormond makes the woman feel very real, so genuine. Alongside her there’s Pullman, whose weirdness permeates almost every single scene he’s in. The way he delivers lines, how he allows Sam to be a friendly type yet standoff-ish at the same time is near genius. Best of all, Pullman really comes out of his shell later on, as the plot necessitates a… different performance. All together, this cast is so strong that even if the writing wasn’t as good they’d be able to pull it off anyway.
Personally, Surveillance is a 4 and 1/2 star affair, every time I watch it again. The first time I wasn’t so sure if I enjoyed it, or if it was only all right. Each viewing brings me closer to realising how god damn wonderful Jennifer Lynch’s movie is, and how the writing is just a slice of greatness. Quality writing doesn’t have to fool anybody. What Harper and Lynch do here is make a bunch of characters, developed in their own right, come together in a creeping, quiet story that sneaks up on you. By the time all the nasty action comes down on top of the viewer, Lynch has made sure we’re lulled into a sense of normalcy. When we’re fixed on determining the truth from lies everything happens fast. Then we’re caught up in the whirlwind.
Give this a chance. It’s an odd bit of horror piled high with dramatic tension. Some awesome performances hook us on the line and never let go. Let the film sink in. The style, the look, everything is tight, and makes for an unexpected treat. After you see this, and hopefully you enjoy it, check out Lynch’s next film Chained. Another macabre dose of cinema.