Watching Jennifer Lynch's Surveillance is like watching air come out of a set of tires. The promise of the set-up and the promising cast slowly dissipates from a screenplay that seems to know that it gets less interesting as it's forced to make more sense. Surveillance falls prey to a common problem of mystery movies in that each revelation does the film a disservice, making it less intriguing instead of more. By the final reveal of Surveillance, there's nothing and no one to care about other than the return of some interesting actors who I wish got more work and a visually confident director. And yet one can't help feeling that it is the pedigree and lineage of said director that is the only reason the film's getting a theatrical release at all (or that it actually played at Cannes last year). With lesser names in front of or behind the camera, this script wouldn't have even been shot, much less theatrically released.
Surveillance opens in an unnamed small town that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. It's one of those towns that you drive through on a rural highway on your way out west – one that feels like it has more cops than civilians just so they can pull over tourists in the local speed trap. A pair of those tourists are brutally murdered in the opening credits sequence. The unseen killers move on to do something equally vicious on the side of a deserted road, murdering several people but leaving a cop (Kent Harper), junkie (Pell James), and child (Ryan Simpkins) as witnesses. A pair of FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) arrive to interrogate the three, putting them in three separate rooms and monitoring their accounts of what exactly went down.
What starts as a Rashomon-esque examination of the truth quickly devolves into a depressing exercise in awful human behavior. It turns out that the cop and his now-dead partner (French Stewart) are a pair of scumbags who shoot out the wheels of passing cars so they can rob tourists at gun point. We also learn that the junkie and her drug-addled boyfriend (Mac Miller) robbed a dealer moments after he overdosed and that the family of the little girl...well, they're just dull. Michael Ironside co-stars as a cop at the station and Cheri Oteri plays the mother of the youngest witness.
The problems with Surveillance stem from an awful sense of timing in the script. The mystery over how so many people ended up dead and yet three witnesses survived makes for an intriguing set-up. I assumed that each witness would tell a different story and we would work to the truth but the set-up never pays off. Surveillance is just a generic thriller with a twist that most viewers will see coming hundreds of miles down the cinematic road. And it's depressingly brutal. I’m talking Eli Roth-level torture brutal. A scene where the two cops torment the junkies and family goes on at least twice as long as it should but might actually earn the film a few cult admirers who just want to see the guy from Third Rock From the Sun shove a gun in a guy’s mouth and force him to make snow angels.
So what saves Surveillance from complete disaster? I miss Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond. In particular, the former has such a presence that one has to wonder why he doesn't work more often. And Lynch has a strong eye, creating some interesting visual compositions with the bleak, never-ending horizon of her setting. Ultimately, Surveillance starts interesting, gets ugly, and ends kind of boring. Lynch takes an intriguing concept and makes it less so as the film goes along and even good work by Pullman and Ormond can't bring it back to life.
Rating: TWO BONES