Film review by: Witney Seibold
Every character in Jennifer Lynch’s “Surveillance” is a bundle of hissing, seething, violent nerves. They all badger one another, spit vitriol in each other faces, snap at one another in sweaty, bestial fury. That a few of them are criminals and perhaps even killers comes naturally in a universe like this. “Surveillance” seems to take place in a world that is a little different than our own, in which violent cosmic justice is enacted by semi-supernatural beings of unholy terror. Its setting is a run down police station in the middle of Nebraska (Saskatchewan), but most of the action is told in flashback, and takes place on a lonely Martian stretch of road that looks like the plains of Hell. No, “Surveillance” is not a pleasant film, and features scenes of violence that are not necessarily bloody or explicit, but are uncomfortable and brutal.
The story mirrors that of “Rashomon.” Two FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, both playing effectively against type) are investigating an incident on the Nebraska roads. Being questioned are a dirty cop (co-writer Kent Harper), a twentysomething drug addict (Pell James), and a little girl (a very good Ryan Simpkins). Some have died, but no one is forthcoming about their stories, preferring to badger and insult everyone around them. Michael Ironside appears as a gruff police chief, and French Stewart (!) appears as an abusive cop.
As the flashbacks unfold, we learn of the highway habits of the Harper and Stewart characters, i.e. that they like to shoot out the tires of passing motorists, bust them for speeding, steal their wallets, threaten to rape them, bully them, and essentially try to frighten the living beejesus out of them. Y’know, for fun. The James character is just trying to escape with a bunch of stolen drugs with her boyfriend (Mac Miller), and the little girl is on an unwanted vacation with her family (Cheri O’Teri plays mom).
That some of these characters aren’t present at the FBI questioning implies that something terrible has happened. Something no one is opening up about. Well, the little girl is open about it, but no one seems to be listening. There is a subplot incorporating a pair of masked serial killers. Of course, the subplot will eventually come into play.
I admired this film. I liked Lynch’s use of sound (clearly taught to her by her famous father David), and her ability to construct such a twisted, heated narrative. It’s rare that a film is able to construct an entire universe of its own, and it’s audacious when directors try. Lynch has been successful. By the time we get to the film’s violent ending, and all secrets have been reveled, we don’t feel jerked around by strange plotting (which the film has been accused of having), but accepting of the film’s inevitability.
Many may be put off by the film’s brutality and ineffable strangeness. That is fine; “Surveillance,” at times, seems to want to deliberately alienate people. I liked it. But a few people did walk out.