In one of the most spectacular flameouts of recent American film, Jennifer Lynch went from hot-shit prodigy to laughingstock with one wacko, lazily maligned movie: 1993’s Razzie-approved “Boxing Helena.” It’s taken David’s daughter 16 years to revive her career, but judging from her follow-up, “Surveillance,” time has stood still. Closely following a mid-Nineties playbook of third-hand genre affectations, grab-bag Americana, serial killer chic, deserted highways at magic hour, cameos by marginal celebrities pantomiming against type, and general bad faith, “Surveillance” is an unwelcome blast from late nights of premium cable’s past. Lynch’s film shows marginally bigger ambitions and production values than cruddy, disposable Daniel Baldwin or Michael Biehn distractions, but it has no greater claim to aesthetic or moral maturity.
Dispensing with buildup or character-pegged emotional investment, “Surveillance” opens with a home invasion slaughter by strobe effect, a teaser of the unmotivated horrors about to commence. Next FBI agents Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Hallaway (Bill Pullman) arrive at the most remote, undermanned police station in America to investigate a grisly three-car massacre, the latest in a series of killings. After sorting the survivors — a jittery cop, a leggy junkie, and a young girl — into separate rooms, Anderson and Hallaway interrogate via closed-circuit TV, rotating among divergent stories that nevertheless converge at the inevitable bloodbath. Despite stiff and dense competition (“Vantage Point,” “One Night at McCool’s”), “Surveillance” might be the least sophisticated handling of the “Rashomon” template. As witnesses tell their story slant, Lynch shows us what actually happened to prove that: surprise! everyone lies. Everyone, that is, but Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins) the pure, precocious little girl with the familiarly flat delivery (just once I’d like to see the lone flame of humanity’s defiance represented by somebody else — a burly, middle-aged retail manager maybe, or even a headstrong, power-suited woman for reparations sake). Despite her creepy lack of affect, the child’s no murderer, but then neither are the two false witnesses. Their stories, laboriously unspooled, serve only to overstate Lynch’s central thesis: that evil not only lurks inside all of us, but that all of us — excepting select little girls — are floridly rotten, rotten, rotten to the core.
Let’s start with Bennett (Kent Harper), the traumatized cop with his poor partner Conrad’s blood still dried to his face. In truth, he and Conrad (French Stewart, dropping edgy f-bombs and sporting a career-revivalist goatee) are marauding nihilists, apparently representative of cops everywhere (“They’re all corrupt” is insightfully observed at one point) who thrill to the pointless theft and torture of innocent motorists. How about Bobbi (zonk-eyed Pell James), the leggy young thing? She’s no better, an amoral cokehead who exults in wild hedonism, mocks all that’s good and sacred in the world, and robs from fresh, frothy-mouthed corpses. First shown drunkenly firing pistols at off-road targets while barking out America’s most notorious murderers — “The Manson family” Bam! Bam! “John Wayne Gacy” Bam! Bam! — Bennett and Conrad blithely shoot out the tires of two passing cars and go all Guantanamo on the gargoyled occupants. In car #1, Bobbi’s forced to talk dirty while her meat slab of a boyfriend has to watch; and outside of car #2, Conrad kisses (“You smell good”) and dry humps a father at gunpoint while Stephanie and family cower in fear, all for a forced dark-comedic laugh. At which point I suppose we’re ready for the slaughter. Building suspense out of audience exhaustion, Lynch makes us anticipate the horror at the end of the road, dread combating wish fulfillment as shrouded killers orchestrate an orgiastic pile-up of cars and bodies. Is death easier to stomach when it claims bad cops, wastoid boyfriends, and other human garbage? Since such misery reads not as grim truth but as a broad articulation of adolescent misanthropy, there’s no moral satisfaction in “Surveillance” — just 97 minutes of unrelenting unpleasantness.
Such an obvious, unleavened take on humanity bears little resemblance to Papa Lynch’s infinitely refracted art, despite Jennifer’s borrowing freely from the master’s iconography — the desert highway as fucked-up funhouse, the high-gloss fetishization of filth, the bottle-top teetering between arch and inept, the presences of Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond. Lynch tries to give her stock characters and genre cliches an ironic snap, but only her game leads give any life to the material. Pullman in particular utilizes every crease and leathery pouch on his face to queerly flinch, stiffly swivel, or roll a wandering tongue against his teeth, pushing every silly line a little closer to perversity. A final twist has the potential to surprise, and perhaps “Surveillance” functions just fine as this year’s freaky mindfuck. Lynch proves adept at preserving plausibility without giving too much away, and the film inspires a nice afterglow of retrospective puzzlement. But even upended and reoriented the film has the same goth-stylish pose. My, what monsters we humans are; all the better to laugh darkly as our heads splatter, the devil has his day, and the endless, pointless road beckons.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff