Surveillance (Movie Review)

Tor's rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ Director: Jennifer Chambers Lynch | Release Date: 2008

Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s “Surveillance” has a title that inspires me not at all. I actually detest this title and I think it may be a significant impediment to getting this film seen by casual fans. Sure it’s somewhat appropriate to the film and safe as all get out for the marketing guys but it makes “Cry Wolf” seem like an inventive master stroke by comparison. Okay, that’s enough title ranting.

Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond play Sam and Elizabeth, FBI agents sent to a rural mid-western town to investigate the latest in a series of brutal killings linked to a group of masked serial killers. The two agents find the local constabulary to be peopled with dangerous incompetents who are led by a simple-minded chief (played by Michael Ironside). They set up several interview rooms and go about questioning the survivors of a roadside attack that left 5 people dead.

In one room is Officer Bennett the surviving officer on the scene is talking to the chief, in another room Bobbi Prescott a local drug addict is being interrogated by two officers and in a third room 8 year old Stephanie is talking to Elizabeth, while Sam is observes all three interviews simultaneously via CCTV. The survivors all unpack the story and through their varying perspectives we are taken back to the events leading up to the incident.

Officer Bennett is careful to omit the true nature of his day and exclude his sociopathic approach to police work from his account just as Bobbi removes all of the drug use from her retelling of the story. Stephanie draws pictures to illustrate what she observed at the scene and seems removed from the trauma of seeing her family butchered before her eyes. The interviews progress, and eventually the stories merge, the characters’ lies are exposed and a gruesome conclusion is reached with a good amount of blood and craze.

This is Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s first feature directorial turn since 1993’s “Boxing Helena” and there is no doubt that she has sharpened her skills and focused her approach during that time. Though I am sure no child of a famous filmmaker relishes the idea of having their work held up next to their more famous parent, here the comparison is unavoidable. The good news is that “Surveillance” is not just a case of mimicking things like “Wild at Heart” or “Lost Highway” but rather refashioning the kind of stillness and unease that made those films work in order to support a more straightforward narrative. Whether or not that is what you want, may determine how much you like “Surveillance”.

In this off-kilter world we are introduced to some familiarly Lychian Characters. The cops are bungling and dangerous, Sam and Elizabeth are as confident as they are odd and the other, more typical characters feel like unsuspecting geese thickened up for a slaughter. Some of the characters are throw away, some cliché, but the ones that work support the film admirably. The standout performance of the film is Ormond. She has always been a unique talent for her combination of elegance and edge, but in this role she stacks stern, measured and playful on top of dangerous. Okay, time for a one sentence*SPOILER ALERT* …Her performance as Elizabeth could best be described as the Milf version of Mallory Knox.

For the most part I enjoyed the range of characters, but some of my biggest complaints are also in this area. At least one of the officers shoots well past comic relief goon and into ‘please keep this guy off the screen’ territory. Ironside as the dim chief is never really given enough to do and even Pullman, who I think is very good for the most part, loses me in places.

While the DVD box trumpets the big surprise and the ‘twisted’ nature of the proceedings as a horror fan none of that really contributed my enjoyment of the film. After you’ve watched one or two August Underground films your shock/morality meter is permanently melted and no mainstream film will ever register again. What is most worthwhile here beyond some of the performances and the atmosphere is the traffic stop scene. The lead up to this point is probably longer and definitely slower than it needs to be, but the wait is rewarded. French Stewart and Kent Harper are solid as bad cop and worse cop, the killers with their Gabríela Friðriksdóttir looking masks give good menace, and the editing and shot selection are spot-on. It’s a strong sequence that really elevates the film above the flat quirky procedural it might have otherwise been.

Stand this centerpiece sequence next to some of great big-sky shooting reminiscent of 1990’s “The Reflecting Skin” and add a burrowing thrum on the soundtrack and you have a moody, bloody, well-crafted piece of entertainment. The sub textual stuff about power and trust, naivety versus innocence, and pride and consequence are lightly felt here, but seem like they are destined to be explored more probingly in a sequel… should one ever come about. The surviving characters have a lot of territory left to mine, so if that movie does get made I will give it a watch…provided they come up with a better title than
“Surveillance 2.”