Although we first ran this review when Surveillance screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival, we’re reposting it for the beginning of its theatrical run.
At first glance, it would be easy to draw parallels between director Jennifer Lynch’s film Surveillance and her father David Lynch’s magnum opus television series and film spinoff Twin Peaks. In both you have FBI agents, in this case Bill Pullman and Julia Ormand, arriving in a small town protected by quirky police officers to investigate the latest in a series of serial killings, a case which they may know more about than they initially let on. But as Lynch’s two agents interrogate the three survivors of the killer’s most recent attacks, it is slowly revealed that these are definitely not her father’s FBI agents.
Arriving at an unnamed, sleepy Santa Fe desert town’s police station, Agents Hallaway (Pullman) and Anderson (Ormand) almost immediately set the local constabulary, led by always reliable character actor Michael Ironside, on edge. They aren’t happy that their investigation is being taken over by outsiders, especially when one of their own happens to be one of the killers’ victims. Placed into three separate rooms, the three survivors of a roadside attack by the killers each give their version of what happened. But the various pieces of the puzzle they supply start to reveal a far more disturbing picture than first presumed.
While the film’s script ensemble actor orientation doesn’t seem to give any character a star turn over the others, Pullman’s work as the twitchy, slightly off-kilter Agent Hallaway, stands out. It is an interesting and subtle performance, far distanced from his normal leading man work. As he observes and directs the three different interrogations via video, he slowly becomes more unnerved, as if the testimony were affected him on a deeper level than one would expect from a federal agent.
The cast also boasts two actors primarily known for their comedy work- French Stewart of the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun and Cheri Oteri, alumnus of Saturday Night Live. Stewart’s police deputy is a stronger, darker comedic character than audiences usually equate with the actor, which perhaps helps to amplify the shock one feels while watching him and his partner acting out thuggish little mind games with pulled over motorists. Oteri plays a typical mom, happy to be on vacation with her family and not about to let the boredom-fuelled antics of her two children in the backseat of the family station wagon ruin things. There’s not much to the role – the biggest acting moment comes when she is reacting in terror when the masked serial killers make their appearance – but she handles it well. It is a definite switch from the oft times antic characters she played on Saturday Night Live.
Narratively, Lynch has taken the now timeworn Rashomon structure of multiple viewpoints of an incident to create a whole picture and applied it to a psychological horror story. It’s a difficult juggling act to do, as you have to ensure that each viewpoint helps to increase and not undercut the mounting suspense, but Lynch manages to keep from dropping the balls. In fact, Lynch opens up a fourth avenue of mounting tension within the police station itself as the interrogations progress.
Interestingly, the film ends in thematically similar territory as does some of her father’s films, though Jennifer Lynch seems to have found herself there on her own. Perhaps the apple didn’t fall as far from the tree as one would first think.