MSPIFF Review: Surveillance

Surveillance poster

Director: Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena)
Writers: Kent Harper, Jennifer Chambers Lynch
Producers: Kent Harper, Marco Mehlitz, David Michaels
Starring: Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Pell James, Ryan Simpkins French Stewart, Ken Harper
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 97


Not your daddy’s cinema. Sure there’s definitely a trace of fatherly influence here, but this is far more of a Rob Zombie tribute than David Lynch. This is hard exploitation at its finest. Unlike Zombie however (specifically The Devil’s Rejects), this movie doesn’t seem to be here just for the sake of violence and victimization; there are some technical mechanics at work here that really delivered… at least for me. Not to say there aren’t some glaring weaknesses, but for the most part it’s fair to say I was on board with this movie from the get-go.

The first two minutes: a quite brutal murder sequence involving two masked figures (one sort of resemblind Michael Myers) bludgeoning and running down a seemingly innocent couple. Lynch left very little to the imagination here as blood splatters across the opening credits. We then cut to Pullman and Ormond; two FBI agents pulling into a rural police station to set up questioning of three witnesses to a crime. Each witness has a different perspective of what happened and each witness has something to hide. Lynch shows us what really happened in flashbacks mode while simultaneously we hear the witnesses tell their own version of what happened in a series of half-truths and distortions.

Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond in SurveillanceWithout the competence of the veteran leads and the supporting cast, this film fails miserably. Fortunately Bill Pullman brings it full throttle to the role and Ormond is surprisingly well fitted to this maladjusted, against type-cast role. It’s been a long time (maybe since Zero Effect) since I’ve seen Pullman completely suppress his good natured, romantic comedy charm and completely submerge himself into a role like this. And by the time the closing credits role, I think you’ll be reminded of at Ormond’s presence here as well. Including Michael Ironside, the rest of the cast somehow gives a sense of believability (or at least setting our minds at ease with effortless suspension of disbelief) despite their overblown caricature-like behavior. I must admit that at points I just thought to myself, “oh come on.” But that feeling ebbed quickly as the characters were continuously pushing the limit.

As mentioned, this is hard-core exploitation. I’d not be surprised in the slightest had this film been slapped with an NC-17 certificate. For the horror fans there is plenty of gore effects and for lovers of the psychological thriller there is enough quirk and oddity with all of these arguably psychotic characters. On the other hand, it might be too subversive for some and may simply throw a person for a loop if they’re not prepared (especially the final 10 minutes or so).

The lack of originality may be another factor that detractors of the film may point to. After all, the movie is fairly cliché ridden and doesn’t do a whole lot that we haven’t seen before in terms of plot. Really it will only work for those willing to go along with the way the story is told in regard to its structure and the (some may argue “over”) acting. Since this is somewhat of a mystery that we’re investigating, it’s fairly easy to spot the outcome at about the two thirds mark since we are dealing with a limited number of characters and the somewhat lazy (and arguably chincy) use of banal clues given (or not given) to us. But this is of little concern. The vehicle that drives us over the bumpy road and through to the end is too much fun to crash and burn.

Kent Harper and French Stewart in SurveillanceThere are a few moments in which I was hoping to get on with the story/mystery and to learn a little bit more of what actually occurred within the subverted turn of events; but instead we’re subjected to a lot of arguably useless bits of exposition and digressive characterization. One can either get on board with this or fall right off the turnip truck. I have to admit that at times it was difficult to hang on, but keeping one’s grip on the bumper makes the trip that much more exciting slash interesting if you stay aboard for the ride.

There’s definitely a mood being set here as well. Maybe it’s not fair, but for Ms. Lynch’s first few attempts at cinema, I think it inevitable to be compared to her father. I hate to conform to such understood obviousness, but there are certain characteristics at play here which make quite clear that Jennifer is just a chip off the ol’ block. Most noticeably I would say being the score. There is very little (if any) use of conventional music; instead, there is an ambient sort of musical style here. Whether it be a long, droning use of a single tone or chord, or the hushed sound of something resembling the wind in a microphone, there’s no denying that Lynch was going for more of a mood than an emotional impact with her choice in music – much like her father. There are also some simple, grainy shots of needlessness from time to time that again are there for some mood and visual exposition. It’s not quite vintage, auteur Lynch Senior, but it’s certainly obvious that the tree hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

This is another clear cut case of “love it or hate it.” There’s no denying that the movie has plenty of elements that are easy to nit-pick or simply scoff at; and I wouldn’t take exception with anyone for analyzing the movie that way. But for those looking for a slap in the face with interesting characters played by cast members whom one may not think of for parts such as these (particularly Ormond), – or for me, who could see the weaknesses but either overlooked them or even bought into the weakness as actually strengths – you may walk away from this film actually feeling pleasantly surprised and dare I say positively blown away.

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Kurt Halfyard
Admin

I've been waiting for this one for some time. If it is worthy of comparison to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (a very underrated bit of greatness) then I'm very happy about that.

swarez
Guest

I'm miffed that I missed this at Fantastic Fest.

lee
Guest

Andrew I think you nailed it. The only thing I disagree with you is on the violence, I do think the general tone heightens and detracts from the actual violence on screen, making the viewer think they have seen more than was there (either that or I’m totally desensitized and may need to get some help.)

It is certainly the case that, if you buy the ticket, you got to be prepared to take the ride wholeheartedly to enjoy this movie.

lee
Guest

NC-17, really I don’t think it comes close, yes there is a slight dance with sexual violence but not to any graphic extent, and as far as I know that is why they usually stamp a film with the dreaded rating.

I can think of only one scene that was gory, but to call it extreme would be pushing it Andrew, but it could maybe be the underlining black humour of the film that softened the edges and the fact I was having such a unexpected goodtime.

On a side note, in the last couple of days I have watched Martyrs and Inside so maybe that's why the movie has tamed down in my recollections.

lee
Guest

Perceptions of violence aside, a damn fine gem of movie and a spot on review.

lee
Guest

'Inside' was intense as fuck, I have seen things that would make a billy goat puke, but that movie just keeps laying on the punishment and got right under my skin.

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