My notes on Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance (2008).Boxing Helena, writer-director Jennifer Lynch’s first feature, was the sort of film it takes fifteen years to live down – reputedly a hot project, famous for a lawsuit about who didn’t star in it, and so grotesquely poor that it didn’t even rate an afterlife as a cult camp item. Surveillance is at least calmer, and more like a real film – though it is littered with all manner of nastiness, from bored traffic cops humiliating law-abiding citizens Bad Lieutenant-style to prank-playing serial killers letting a little girl go free because they recognise a potential kindred spirit. The tricky format has smart-suited FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) taking over the investigation of a complicated cluster-hump of crimes that have taken place in the middle of nowhere – and supervising the interrogations of the survivors, jittery crooked cop Bennet (Kent Harper), jittery junkie chick Bobbi (Pell James) and creepily calm little girl Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins). Sam has video monitors so he can keep track of three interviews conducted simultaneously (a movie trick rather than credible detective work), as flashbacks fill in the story of how Bennet and his equally gun-happy partner (French Stewart), Stephanie’s squabbling middle-class family, Bobbi and her loser boyfriend (Mac Miller) and some fright-masked serial killers pile into each other out on the highway and many of the characters wound up dead in the dirt.
Like every film which tries an approach like this, publicity evokes Rashomon – though the flashbacks we see are not subjective. Rather than having stories which contradict each other, the film presents self-serving voice-overs which segue into unflattering stories — Bobbi refers to ripping off a dope dealer who ODs during their meet as ‘a job interview’, Bennet talks about helpfully upholding the law while we see him abusing innocents, etc., though the little girl seems always to be truthful if evasive. Vital bits of information are withheld and have to be filled in later, to tie up a downbeat twist which is almost studied in its nihilist amorality. It’s all an exercise in misdirection, referring to of Twin Peaks (Lynch wrote the novel spinoff which became Fire Walk With Me) in the friction between slightly eccentric, if sharply-dressed (‘fuckable’) feds and the simmering, outclassed, juvenile local cops (Michael Ironside is the dignified, if slow chief). This pays off in a very different way here than it did in the TV show. It has moments of scripted subtlety – a character who steps out of the story because she has a date with the town coroner later turns up murdered – but too often simply plays cute, with major contrivances to keep the plot balls up in the air.
Pullman and Ormond, veterans of David Lynch films, are fine in the lead roles, and everyone else does what they need to in necessarily limited parts – the witnesses and other cops are naturally subordinate, and this is a movie where it doesn’t do to get too attached to anyone since they almost certainly won’t be around very long. It plays better as a feature-length tease than it does as a study of the dark side of human nature – for its big twists are so hokey that the nagging misanthropy gets swallowed by ‘fooled you!’ taunts.