Surveillance (2008)

Surveillance first published by Little White Lies

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 has been ignored ever since by every adult she has tried to tell. She might even, at a stretch, be regarded as a figure for the film’s director, Jennifer Lynch, who in 1993, at just 24, became the youngest American woman ever to have made a feature with Boxing Helena – and who 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.  

In the incident, young cokehead Bobbi (Pell James) has lost her boyfriend Johnny (Mac Miller), local officer Jack Bennett (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 is only because Lynch carefully establishes the capacity within us all for smiling amorality. As one character puts it, perfectly summarising the film’s bleak tone: “It’s fucking dark in here – there’s no light.” 

  The parallel storylines are deftly handled in all their duplicity, Peter Wunstorf’s cinematography is a hyperreal pleasure unto itself, a buzz-cutted Pullman reveals for the first time his ability to act without channeling 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 dark from anything made by her father David.  

Enjoyment: It’s no straight story. 

In Retrospect: Thrilling, devilishly plotted, and unremittingly bleak to the last.  

© Anton Bitel