Mar 8, 2009

Surveillance [18]

Dir: Jennifer Lynch
When she was 19 Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) made her directorial debut with Boxing Helena, an almost universally reviled film that Kim Basinger was so keen to not have to be in that she paid out millions of dollars in compensation after breaking her contract (and, lets remember, Basinger was in such barely remembered dreck as The Real McCoy, so it’s not like she had the most stringent quality control in the world). Surveillance is Lynch’s first film since that now 15 year old debacle, and it’s not just good, it’s good enough that I want to see Boxing Helena, because I’m wondering if the prevailing opinion is wrong.

It’s not, perhaps, the most original story in the world; a couple of FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) turning up in the middle of nowhere to investigate a grisly crime, the details of which are revealed, Rashomon like, through the varying recollections of three survivors (Pell James, Ryan Simpkins and co-writer Kent Harper) but Lynch and Harper’s screenplay combines a compelling and vicious setup with a well paced, constantly unfolding, series of twists and an offbeat sense of none more black humour to create an identity of its own. What really sells Surveillance, at script level, is that rare sense that every character is speaking with his or her own voice. Usually what you get is a series of variations on how the writer talks (step forward Kevin Smith), but here everyone, even the characters with limited screen time, has a defined voice, and lines never feel like they could be transposed between characters, meaning that you immediately get a feel for each of the characters.

Directorially Lynch does bear the influence of her Father, but then why wouldn’t you take a little from a filmmaker that interesting? The opening sequence here is the one that’s closest to ‘Lynchian’, a nightmarish, elliptical, depiction of a murder that feels like it could have come right out of Lynch senior’s baffling and brilliant Lost Highway. Thereafter though Lynch does establish her own style and identity, and any echoes of her father are not present just because, they are appropriate to the story, and in the hands of any filmmaker Surveillance would have come out ‘Lynchian’.

Movies with a twist in the tail come in two varieties; there are those where the twist is just there, just a gimmick, and makes little sense and then there are those movies that, immediately after their twist, you begin to unravel from the beginning, movies that play differently when you know the twist, because every scene now has an undercurrent. Surveillance, without wanting to give anything away, is the latter, in fact it may well play even better when you know what the twist is (as I did, having accidentally been spoiled by a review) because that undercurrent gives each scene an added layer of menace and, on occasion, humour.

The performances are almost all of a certain style, at times reaching almost operatic levels (particularly in the case of Pullman’s lunatic display), and this will rub many audiences the wrong way. However these are all very fine performances, and they fit the film beautifully. Julia Ormond has lately been missing in action, but she made an intriguing return to the screen in INLAND EMPIRE and she gets a great showcase here, giving a performance that makes the twist work, both before and after it is revealed.

The female cast excel; Pell James impressing as a drug addict who has lost her boyfriend and young Ryan Simpkins building on her extraordinary turn in Gardens of the Night with another seemingly effortlessly real performance here as a young girl whose entire family has died. If she and her family continue to pick roles this good for her then we really could be talking about another Jodie Foster.  The real surprise among the cast is French Stewart, who I’d only ever seen as an incredibly irritating alien in the not terribly funny sitcom Third Rock From the Sun. Here Stewart is both funny and scary as one of a pair of deeply corrupt cops, and gives a performance that I would never have imagined him capable of.

Surveillance is a tricky film, a fine balance of horror, thriller and character based comedy, and watching Jennifer Lynch pull it off is like watching a great high wire act. I really hope that we don’t have to wait another 15 years for her to follow this one up.

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