Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance opens with a brutal home invasion that serves as a springboard into one of the most twisted, delirious, and darkly humorous psychological thrillers I’ve seen since her father, David Lynch, mined similar territory with his own Twin Peaks. It’s Jennifer Lynch’s first film since her critically lambasted debut, Boxing Helena, and one that marks the reemergence of what I suspect will be a major force in dark cinema from this point forward.
Surveillance offers three perspectives of a brutal highway massacre as told by said massacre’s three survivors, including crooked cop, Jack Bennet (Kent Harper, who also co-wrote the screenplay), drug-addled drifter, Bobbi Prescott (Pell James), and eight year old Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins). The witnesses are separated and interviewed by FBI Agents, Halloway (Bill Pullman) and Anderson (Julia Ormond), with each offering their own unique spin on their experience.
Bennet and his partner, Jim Conrad (French Stewart), are bored smalltown cops who spend half of their day drinking and shooting road signs, and the other half of their day harassing and stealing from speeding commuters on an isolated stretch of highway. The two cops are the first on scene when the bodies of the victims of the home invasion are discovered, but, after a taste of actual police work, the men are quickly relegated back to their highway beat, feeling more wound-up and superfluous than ever.
When an angry Bennet spies a speeding station wagon, he shoots out the tire and he and Conrad move in for a game of good cop/bad cop. The drug-addled Bobbi and Johnny (Mac Miller), meanwhile, narrowly miss slamming into the disabled vehicle, themselves, and stop to help vehicle’s occupants, including the young Stephanie, who is convinced that she witnessed a bloody scene further back down the road. Bennet and Conrad swoop in, and torment and embarrass both vehicles’ occupants, but, before they depart, a resolute Stephanie tells them what she saw. The cops laugh it off, but, on their way back to town, find that Stephanie was telling the truth, and they return to Stephanie’s family’s vehicle just as all hell breaks loose. After a brutal encounter with a pair of serial killers who have cut a swath of violence across the country, only Bennet, Stephanie, and Bobbi are left to tell the tale.
Surveillance is a film whose success or failure is dependent on a few vital twists and turns, so I won’t delve into the plot’s finer details, here. I will say that the Rashoman-style narrative employed by Lynch makes for a compelling viewing experience and, while I wasn’t exactly surprised by the film’s ending, the intense and efficient manner in which it unfolds is an absolute blast to behold, with standout performances from Harper, Stewart, and, especially, Bill Pullman, who delivers one of his finest turns here.
Magnolia/Magnet presents Surveillance on Blu-ray in an excellent 2.35:1 transfer that offers a sharp, defined image brimming with exceptional detail. The film uses several different visual approaches and mediums to tell its tale, so some sequences look better than others. The opening scene, for example, is extremely gritty and grainy, and looks to have been shot using a lower-end digital camera, while flashbacks are presented in a high contrast, selectively saturated aesthetic. Overall, though, the image is quite pleasing, with a nice sense of depth and dimension, and vivid, lifelike colors.
The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is center heavy, with crisp dialogue and the film’s sparse, droning score present in the front of the house. There’s some immersion provided by discrete effects emanating from the surround and rear channels, with only a few moments in which audio fills the entire soundstage. Sound separation is spot-on, however, and the mix sounds true and organic.
Supplements include a brief and humorous behind-the-scenes featurette (Surveillance: The Watched are Watching), deleted scenes and alternate ending, and a quartet of trailers for other Magnolia releases.
Surveillance is a wonderfully crafted and tautly paced thriller that, while hinged on a dénouement many will see coming, is another case in which the journey is far more rewarding than the destination. It’s a thrilling, disturbing, and grimly humorous ride through the human psyche that fans of the genre should not miss.