Movie Review: Surveillance
By Matthew Huntley
July 6, 2009

This picture is like one giant homage to Soderbergh.

Surveillance is a slow, bizarre thriller meant to test the audience's endurance. It has been directed by Jennifer Lynch and produced by her father, David, who is famous for his own line of twisted tales that feature extreme violence and sadomasochism. Like father, like daughter.

But Surveillance isn't sick and weird just for the sake of being sick and weird. Underneath its meandering façade, director Lynch seems in complete control of her resources and works to manipulate and challenge us. However strange, banal and inconsequential a lot of the scenes may seem, she always keeps us interested. I even found a message in it.

The movie starts off like any other generic B thriller, when a serial killer with a grotesque mask — one that looks like it's made of papier mache — beats a sleeping husband and wife in a sleazy motel. The wife manages to escape, but the killer comes after her in one of those typical serial killer vans. She's presumed kidnapped.

Two days later, a blonde drug addict (Pell James), an eight-year-old girl (Ryan Simpkins) and a corrupt cop (Kent Harper) wait together in a dilapidated police station. They too have had a run-in with the killer, but they managed to live and talk about it. Now they're waiting for Agents Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Hallaway (Bill Pullman) from the FBI, who want to question them about the gruesome event that took place on a desolate road that resulted in five deaths. There's already tension between the local police officers and the FBI since the cops think the Feds are trying to do their jobs.

At first, the movie seems like it will go down a familiar path of having the junkie, the little girl and the cop all testify about what they were doing the day of the murders as we try and decipher who's telling the truth. But it doesn't quite take that route because the two adults are obviously lying based on what they tell us and what their flashbacks actually reveal. It's not like the truth matters that much anyway because each of the stories actually has little to do with the murders that take place later on. We know up front that everyone who's not the drug addict, the little girl and the bruised cop will eventually be killed.

Lynch makes us witnesses to all the characters' miserable and mundane lives. Stephanie, the eight-year-old girl, is on vacation with her mom (Cheri Oteri), step-father (Hugh Dillon) and brother (Kent Wolkowski), but no one is having a particularly good time as they ride along in their beat-down car. The wounded cop, Officer Bennet, and his erring partner (French Stewart) serve no real purpose as law enforcers and spend most of their day shooting out people's tires and pulling them over to rob them. Bobbi, the junkie, and her boyfriend (Mac Miller) have just stolen the last of a dead man's narcotics and snort cocaine as they drive. We don't really know where they're going.

About halfway through the screening, another member of the audience leaned over to me and said there are no likable characters in this movie, which I think is one of the points — a serial killer is on the loose, but the people who are being killed don't have much to live for in the first place. Or at least that's what the movie would have us believe since the characters' behavior is wretched. They're also ambitionless, out of shape, tired and show nothing but remorse. Based on we do know about them, no one is really going to care whether they live or die. The only reason the FBI agents are coming to Podunk is because it's protocol. In that regard, it's also a sad movie to watch because of how little we care about the people in it, but that's just one of the spins Lynch puts on the genre, which I found interesting, but also underwhelming.

One great thing about the movie is its production design. It's simple and bleak, but quite effective. Lynch films in what appears to be a real, run-down police station, with scuff marks on the floors and walls, old holiday decorations on the tack boards, and rotting dishes in the sink. Like the characters, there's something oddly fascinating about this location that makes you unable to take your eyes off it. The whole time you're looking at the putrid conditions, you think about how there used to be a use for it all and now it's just wasting away. To me, that's the movie's message — unless we continue to make use of our resources, they will eventually become wasted and of no use to anybody. It's almost like the movie serves as a warning or threat to laziness and settling for less.

The message is reinforced by some of the wardrobe. For instance, the police captain's (Michael Ironside) uniform is too big and loose on him, as if his other uniform became so tight that he needed to go up to next available size. Could it be he was getting too fat and not using his body enough for exercise? Similarly, the pant suit worn by the police station secretary (Caroline Aaron) is too tight. Perhaps she's underpaid and can't afford new clothes.

Even if I am looking too far into these elements, the movie is full of nuances like these that grab your attention and make you think about them, even though they appear to be nothing at all. As drawn out and negligible as everything seems, I couldn't turn away from the screen and I didn't find myself tuning out. The movie is hypnotizing the way random, weird events keep happening and how they don't seem tied together. It's ultimately about disgraceful human nature.

The ending is a real letdown. For the first three quarters, the movie has an offbeat tone, but at the start of the last act, it descends toward a formula ending. I would rather have it keep on asking us why we should care about these people rather than dish out a sensational twist. To its credit, it was creepy and it did pick up the movie's slow pace, but I would have preferred the movie continue challenging us.

Surveillance is interesting to experience, but, alas, it is not an entertaining movie to watch. Interesting and entertaining are not interchangeable. However, it is not a picture I will soon forget and although I don't officially recommend it for a trip to the theater, I would say look for it on the home market. Up until the ending, it sort of works like Fargo, although it's not nearly as funny, in which a whole lot doesn't seem to happen, but we're still mesmerized by its presentation. The movie is cringing, sometimes boring and all-around weird, but despite such off-putting qualities, you can't look away.