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Uncovering Clues on the Lost Highway

Surveillance (2008)

Magnet Releasing

To say that Jennifer Lynch's "Surveillance" is a chip off the old Lynchian block is alternately misleading and accurate. Whereas the films orchestrated by her auteur father, David, disturb by turning the viewer's brain into a battered punching bag, "Surveillance" achieves a similar feeling of psychological unease in a much more coherent manner. The film is a deviant surprise, an unwavering hell ride from the mind of a once left-for-dead filmmaker. After the critical drubbing and box-office tanking of her 1993 debut, "Boxing Helena," Ms. Lynch hadn't exactly put her name on the list of tomorrow's best filmmakers. In fact, her name had become somewhat of an afterthought, one of the many examples of unsuccessful nepotism. "Surveillance's" paralyzing tone and controlled ultra-violence, however, show that Ms. Lynch has emerged from Hollywood's time-out corner with a vengeance.

The script, co-written by Ms. Lynch and Kent Harper, moves like your basic police procedural on the surface. Three testimonies from survivors of a seven-casualty highway massacre are intercut with flashbacks to the event. Witnesses are uncooperative, the authority figures stern. Standard operating procedure. As the film unravels, though, Ms. Lynch peels away the convention and lathers on layers of reckless sensibility, escalating the tension with sordid images and demented reveals that should make her father, credited here as an executive producer, quite proud. The only truly sympathetic character to be found in "Surveillance" is a quiet, shell-shocked eight-year-old girl (played nicely by newcomer Ryan Simpkins); otherwise, the script forgoes any requested compassion and simply assaults good taste with crooked cops, drug-using losers and two humorless leads. This isn't one for optimists. The middle-of-nowhere setting established by Ms. Lynch is a cesspool filled with despicable people.

Comparing Ms. Lynch to her father is expected, and, frankly, lazy. There's no denying that. "Surveillance's" dreamlike opening-credits sequence makes bridging the father-daughter gap immediately unavoidable, though. What you're watching is a double "home invasion" homicide; but, through Ms. Lynch's eyes, it's a hallucinatory nightmare. The only sounds heard are a ticking clock and echoing screams, backing a roving flashlight, glimpsed-at bloodshed and a killer wearing a mask that looks like the flesh-made facial coverings worn by Leatherface. A perfectly unsettling lead-in to "Surveillance's" central story that centers on two FBI members (an unhinged Bill Pullman and a deliciously icy and dynamic Julia Ormond) sorting out the horrific survivor accounts of an injured patrolman (co-writer Mr. Harper), a stone, sexually-open blonde (Pell James) and Ms. Simpkins's aforementioned little girl. Extra credit must be given to both Mr. Pullman and Ms. Ormond for playing their atypical characters with such tangible pleasure.

The film's centerpiece – the serial killer attack on the open road – is where "Surveillance" really hits its pulsating stride. Rather than stick to generic gunfire and slice-and-dice, Ms. Lynch opts to go the extra mile in every way possible. A man isn't just shot in the arm at point-blank range; the blast is fired through a fresh corpse's skull, the bullet's release causing the dead man's face to explode. As if using a belt to strangle a crying woman while she's tied to a chair isn't sick enough, Ms. Lynch dispatches of the poor girl in the midst of steamy lesbian kissing and impending three-way sex. Would the child of the man behind "Eraserhead" and "Mulholland Dr." present naturalistic horror any other way? Those Take Your Daughter to Work days of their past have really paid off.

"Surveillance" nearly jumps the shark with a climactic twist that initially feels uninspired, even predictable. Experienced fans of horror-thrillers may see the outcome hurling toward them from a mile away. For all of the fiendishly-good that came before the ultimate reveal, infuriation could even rear its ugly head. Give the film a second look, though, and you'll realize that Ms. Lynch hasn't cheated. She's been playing fair the whole time, dropping subtle clue after clue. The pieces all fit, even if the puzzle's final chunk provides a disappointing completion.

The entertained and enthralled will take solace in the fact that "Surveillance" ends just how it progresses from the first reel, giving the familiar a boldly-confident, brutal and pitch-black makeover. The less-pleased will most likely retreat with plans to see "The Proposal" in tow, hoping to rid their thoughts of "Surveillance's" nihilistic sneak attack. Either way, Ms. Lynch's mission can be considered accomplished.


Opens on June 26 in Manhattan.

Directed by Jennifer Lynch; written by Ms. Lynch and Kent Harper; director of photography, Peter Wunstorf; produced by Marco Mehlitz; released by Magnet Releasing. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Bill Pullman (Sam Hallaway), Julia Ormond (Elizabeth Anderson), Ryan Simpkins (Stephanie), Pell James (Bobbi), French Stewart (Officer Jim Conrad), Kent Harper (Officer Jack Bennett), Cheri Oteri (Mom) and Michael Ironside (Captain Billings).


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