Surveillance Review

Surveillance film still
  • Released

    March 6, 2009


At the core of Surveillance is Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), an eight-year-old girl who has witnessed ‘some things children shouldn’t see’, and who’s been ignored ever since by every adult she has tried to tell. She might even, at a stretch, be regarded as a symbolic stand-in for the film’s director, Jennifer Lynch. In 1993, the then-24-year-old daughter of David Lynch became the youngest American woman ever to make a feature. That feature was the disastrous Boxing Helena – and Lynch was then shunned, overlooked and marginalised for over a decade by an industry that was not interested in her peculiar vision.

This Rashomon-esque tale of multiple perspectives and split personalities sees Lynch back with a vengeance, taking the viewer by the throat with scenes of abuse, nihilism and casual depravity. After a brief prologue that shows two masked serial killers at work, the film begins with Federal Officers Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) and Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) arriving at a small-town police station the day after a roadside massacre, hoping to determine whether a coherent account of what happened can be gleaned from the three survivors’ testimonies.

Young cokehead Bobbi (Pell James) has lost her boyfriend Johnny (Mac Miller). Local officer Jack Bennet (co-writer Kent Harper) has lost his patrol partner Jim Conrad (French Stewart). And little Stephanie has lost her entire family. But each has a guilty secret that they are desperate to conceal, and no one is quite who they seem.

Surveillance certainly comes with a killer twist, but the third-act revelation here avoids appearing a mere gimmick by picking up closely on themes of anomie, corruption and moral emptiness that have in fact permeated the whole film. If the viewer suspects anyone and everyone of being a cold-blooded killer, that’s only because Lynch carefully establishes the capacity within us all for smiling amorality. As one character puts it, “It’s fucking dark in here – there’s no light.”

The parallel storylines are deftly handled in all their duplicity, and Peter Wunstorf’s cinematography is a hyperreal pleasure unto itself. Sporting a buzz-cut, Pullman reveals for the first time his ability to act without channelling all his energies through his mobile forelock. And although her tale involves wild-at-heart lovers racing down a lost highway, Lynch has created a whole different shade of black from anything made by her father.

View 4 comments


6 years ago
The reviewer gives this film way too much credit, which is funny given how little credit the film maker gives the audience. The plot twist was obvious from about 20 minutes in but was so obvious I hoped the film was luring me down the wrong path and would pull the rug from under me... Nope, it served up the 'twist' alongside some spectacular scenery-chewing (I thought one player might actually turn into Godzilla) and bargain basement Lynchian techniques (did someone leave the air-con running?). The plot leaves no room for real speculation as to who the killers are and as soon as the 'main event' is revealed any tension sputters out and the film becomes a silly mess. The final act's painfully ill-judged plotting and execution removes the film from the realms of reality. However, instead of becoming nightmarish it left me feeling removed and detached to the point that it had me giggling in my seat.
It seems a missed opportunity - handled more deftly this could have been a meditation on morality (or lack of it), or at least a tense 'the killer is inside the house' thriller, but instead it offers little more than a schlocky, one-dimensional B-movie, which is a shame. There is a difference between nihilism and pointlessness, Lynch seems not to be aware of this.


6 years ago
Contrary to the claim that this film's ethos (so to speak) is nihilistic, Jennifer Lynch is mining a feature of human nature more explicitly and less nuancedly indicated by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man. Surveillance highlights Original Sin on stilts, and is far more allusive and elegantly put together than any of the tired "the killer is inside the house" films. This is a *movie* in the tradition of the great American films of the 1940s: it is directed with a distinct inflection, its narrative unfolding is tight and tense, the actors are directed with gusto and the cinematography is quite beautiful without succumbing to standard cliches of the thriller genre found in torture porn, or cars-spinning-through-the-air or "killer in the house" films. The film is indeed dark to the hilt, and this seems to be what has elicited the prissy reactions of a good number of the critics. The notably un-dark child character so effectively realized by Ryan Simpkins provides a telling thematic counterpoint to the other characters and makes this movie much more than the kind of formulaic gorefest that we have been forced to become used to. - As to whether the "twist" is telegraphed, most but not all of the folks I've talked to did not anticipate what a few others did. But it doesn't matter: the masterful performance of Julia Ormond functions to make this film work to the last frame, however heads-upped the viewer might be. but by all means see for yourself.


6 years ago
Didn't work for me; there's no point in calling out Original Sin without also talking about the possibility of redemption. (Or, to put it another way, where are the robins?) Everything was literally presented, and linear, and a single line discussion of an argument about humanity that I don't agree with. And, much of the violence was more about self-indulgence and chicitude than story telling. Aren't we done with the lesbian scene fad already? (And, tell me again why this wasn't just a snuff film with it's clothes on.)

And, by the way, I actually like Boxing Helena.

Anton Bitel

6 years ago
How can a film presented in flashback through multiple perspectives (and accompanying, often unreliable, voice-overs) be called 'linear'?
And what exactly do you mean by 'a snuff film with its clothes on'? Surveillance is neither a snuff film, nor (to my mind) anything like one - except in the loosest of loose senses that it offers a fictive representation of cruelty and murder (much like, er, Star Wars does).
Also, while I have absolutely no problem with films that offer no redemption, isn't, as AGN suggests, Stephanie the 'robin' you're looking for?
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