Either it runs in the family or Jennifer is one hell of a mimic, because there’s an unmistakably Lynchian undercurrent to much of the goings-on in Surveillance, which lends some juice to a somewhat pulpy yet dry and familiar scenario. During the opening scenes, as Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond show up at a tiny police precinct wearing the kind of blue suits that denote FBI badgeholders, the younger Lynch adds an otherwordly soundtrack drone to the activity that flashed me right back to the first reel or so of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
The younger director doesn’t have the pop-cultural cachet to score anything like a David Bowie cameo; instead she settles for Pullman, who extends himself in all directions here. Is it unfair to compare her to her more famous, crazy accomplished father? Perhaps, although she does seem to be working in much the same milieu, and it would be not just unfair but insulting not to hold her films to the same standards as her father’s. So consider that the younger Lynch’s notorious achievement to date was her much-reviled feature debut Boxing Helena, which played like a surrealist nightmare with a porny gauze — think Dali working for The Playboy Channel circa the early 1990s. The killers-on-the-road movie she mounts here proves that she got the surrealism from her dad as surely as she borrowed some of the particulars of his obsessively voyeuristic gaze.
If the familiar musical cues, and the sense of dread they convey, are unmistakably effective, they’re also a feint. The strategy is distraction, and Lynch uses every trick at her disposal to deflect attention from the fact that the presence of Pullman and Ormond at that police station is a clumsy framing device for the long flashback at the heart of the film dealing with a series of bizarre murders in the middle of nowhere.
Said flashback is tarted up with all kinds of unnecessary narrative contrivance. Pullman and Ormond don’t just question the witnesses to the crimes — they include a coked-up young woman, a little girl in blonde pigtails, and a sadistic cop apparently on loan from the touring-company production of Bad Lieutenant — but instead set up three separate cameras in three different rooms so that Pullman can watch all three interviews simultaneously and interject questions in real time. For a time, the suggestion seems to be that the different narrators might play Rashomon-like games with their interrogators and the audience, each interpreting the bloody events in different and contradictory ways. There’s a hint of this when the stories being related during questioning are shown to be somewhat at odds with the apparently “true” events unfolding on screen, but Lynch (nor credited co-writer Kent Harper) doesn’t make much of this, opting instead simply to selectively withhold information to be divulged at key a-ha moments later on. So the gimmick feels undercooked, like a writer’s concept that was never developed into something that cohered narratively or worked dramatically.
If Surveillance starts off awkwardly, it does begin to sustain interest when it dispenses with the tomfoolery and instead relates in straightforward fashion a long, bizarre sequence set on and beside a lonesome highway. A dramatically staged sequence of Grand Guignol involving a sudden lonesome-highway pile-up and a miniature massacre in its aftermath never quite pays off, and once we find ourselves back at the police station, where the film’s third act will obviously play out, it’s pretty clear what Lynch is up to.
Once Lynch cranks up the violence, and the sadism, it becomes clear that she’s tapping a strain of the zeitgeist that falls somewhere in between the somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone of Wild at Heart and the more au courant trend toward savage, nihilistic deranged-killer movies. The climactic sequence of Surveillance is fairly extreme by any sane measure, yet it’s more artful and arguably more restrained than much of what’s booked these days as mainstream multiplex entertainment. What she does here is interesting, maybe even witty, as a consideration of current critical semantics. You want torture porn? Jennifer Lynch has got torture porn down pat. (Flashing back again on Boxing Helena, you could say she’s old school.) The woman has chops and I like her attitude as she strives to illuminate the blackness, but Surveillance is a minor exercise in this kind of trailblazing that never musters enough ferocity and grace for its light to reach any of the dark places where David Lynch leads us so easily.