by Del Harvey
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Two FBI agents appear in a small town plagued by a string of brutal murders. In the latest incident, one of the local cops has been killed following a routine traffic stop on a quiet rural highway. Also on the scene were the passengers from two cars, and two of those passengers were left alive - an 8 year old girl and a stoned young blonde. Everyone else was brutally murdered.
But this is a film by a young woman whose last name is Lynch. Jennifer Lynch is the daughter of David Lynch, and her father is the executive producer. And showing she’s a chip off the old block, there are many moments in the film where that particular influence is quite recognizable. But unlike her father, her film is the exact opposite of a dream; instead, it is more the variety of ultra-realism which is startling and shocking. The insanity of the killer’s actions are heightened, whether we are watching them being committed or following one of the individuals who discovers the scene post act. The cinematography is something in between the uber-realism of a news broadcast and that of Lynch’s best work. And it is powerful and effective.
There is also clever use of the Rashomon style of storytelling in which the FBI set up three cameras in three rooms so that he can watch the three interrogators question each one of the witnesses simultaneously. It also allows the filmmakers to cut back and forth between flashbacks and the witnesses’ recounting of the events, offering different perspectives for the audience. Again, this is a very effective technique.
The script, co-written by Jennifer Lynch and Kent Harper, offers the actors plenty of opportunities to expand into their characters and stretch beyond what we have come to expect from their typical performances, especially in the case of the beautiful Julia Ormond and the usually comedic French Stewart. In Surveillance they get to reveal sides of their acting prowess never imagined for either of these actors. And across the board the acting is quite good. Bill Pullman is twitchy, subtle, and deft in his portrayal of an FBI agent who is either on edge or who is hiding some psychological response to all the violence laid out before him. Pell James, seen previously in small parts in films such as Zodiac, provides nuance in her role as the drugged and sexy blonde left alive at the scene. And Ryan Simpkins as the 8 year old witness does a wonderful job of presenting us with the type of faceted character that so many children are, leaving us to wonder if she is truly numbed by what she has seen or perhaps was numbed long ago by too much exposure to violence in the media.
Surveillance is, in every frame and in every subplot, about truth and how we go about hiding it from one another. If trust is the ultimate intimacy, then the killer is the only one able to wring it out of anyone in the film. Each and every character reveals their ability to lie, to cheat, to tease, to taunt, and to mislead through their choice of words, their selectivity in recalling what actually occurred to them, whether in the midst of a horrible and violent scene or in a routine interaction with another human being in the course of their otherwise humdrum lives. It delves into the unspoken and inevitable need we humans have for excitement or intrigue, even if it is only suggested. In the end, that is what ticks at the heart of this film.
I was pleased to see that the daughter had borrowed just enough of her father’s skills and artistry to craft such a rich, psychological tale. And relieved to see that her chosen path is towards storytelling in a more accessible methodology, and not rooted sticking to the sort of “you figure it out” type of filmmaking that is her father’s trademark.
Grim, dark, gritty, disturbing, and violent though Surveillance may be, I suggest you sit through a viewing and see if you don’t come away with the same impression.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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