Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // September 10th, 2009
Three witnesses. Two FBI Agents. One BIG twist.
Since its quiet theatrical release back in June 2009, director Jennifer Lynch's Surveillance has raised a few eyebrows and sickened even more stomachs. Whether critics liked it or not, practically everyone agrees it was a vast improvement over Lynch's first film, Boxing Helena. Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Helena was lambasted and labeled as unbearable. Now, David's daughter gives us her sophomore effort, which is intense, disturbing, and superbly crafted, a virtual 180-degree turn from her previous effort.
A rural community is on edge after the discovery of several brutal murders, all of which are linked to the same killer or killers. Enter FBI Agents Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman, Spaceballs) and Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond, Smilla's Sense Of Snow), who converge onto the local police precinct to get some answers. They have three witnesses to interview: Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins, Revolutionary Road), an 11-year old daughter of a vacationing family; Bobbi Prescott (Pell James, Zodiac), a young junkie whose boyfriend was one of the victims; and Officer Jack Burnett (Lynch's co-screenwriter Kent Harper), who just lost his partner to the psycho killer. Each gives a slightly different perspective on what happened, and only one harbors the vital clue to the killer's identity.
Surveillance is essentially an update of the legendary Rashomon, except this time with a lot more gore. The film is deliberately slow, something else that will turn off some audiences. As for me, I was hooked and taken aback at Lynch's storytelling and character development. It must be noted that she doesn't even attempt to emulate her father, a man whose made his fair share of crime thrillers, including Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Without apology or irony, Lynch and Harper plunge us into a nightmare. Depending on the viewer, one will either be repulsed or glued to their seat. I was among the latter, thankfully.
What I admire Lynch for is her patience in telling the story. She doesn't go for clever visuals or hokey metaphors, but just sticks with the characters and shows us how their lives cross. She manages to paint some compelling portraits of morality and humanity on both sides of the law and within the law itself. For example, the cops have a method of taking down motorists that can be best described as sadistically unorthodox. The junkies seem to be living in a Fantasy Land even when they aren't on speed. And the FBI agents are all the while just trying to put something together out of conflicting details. There are a lot of elements to absorb, granted, but somehow Lynch makes it all work.
The film also benefits from ideal casting across the board. Pullman and Ormond seemingly melt into their by-the-book agent roles and deliver exceptional performances. Both have worked with Jennifer's dad before -- and Pullman had a supporting role in Boxing Helena -- so they no doubt felt completely comfortable on set and with their director. James, given one of her best roles to date, is beginning to come into her own as an actress. Simpkins is precious and effective as Stephanie. Harper and French Stewart (!) are genuinely creepy as the cops. Finally, it's always great to see veteran character actors Caroline Aaron (Beyond The Sea) and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) who are, once again, given juicy supporting roles.
Magnolia Home Entertainment does a fine job with Surveillance's technical presentation. The 2.35:1 anamorphic does boast some imperfections, but it's mostly a satisfying transfer. The bright, sun-baked exterior shots are enough to make anyone sweat, and they mesh well with the dull palettes utilized indoors. Viewers have a choice between a 5.1 Surround track and a 2.0 Stereo track. Both get the job done, as dialogue is always distinguishable. Optional Spanish subtitles and closed captioning are also available.
Extras begin with a commentary by Lynch and actors Charlie Newmark (Officer Wright) and Mac Miller (who plays Bobbi's boyfriend). All three offer an adequate amount of information on the project, and their banter is lively. A mediocre featurette (the 15-minute "The Watched Are Watching") is made up of some interviews with Lynch and cast members. "HDNet: A Look At Surveillance" is an extended trailer attempting to pass itself off as a featurette, and thus isn't worth it at all. Finally we have an alternate ending and two deleted scenes which are interesting; all are accompanied by optional commentary.
One of the major selling points of Surveillance is its huge twist, which I predicted much too early on. It didn't ruin the experience for me, mind you; it was just a bit disappointing that Lynch chose such an obvious maneuver to climax a story which was compelling enough on its own.
Grisly but gripping, dark but entertaining, Surveillance is highly recommended as a rental. Kudos also to Lynch, who overcomes Helena's reputation with something memorable.
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes