- Jennifer Chambers Lynch
- Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Michael Ironside, French Stewart
- 98 min.
- Release Date
Did you know David Lynch, creator of Twin Peaks and director of Blue Velvet, has a daughter named Jennifer that makes movies too? Well, he does. And she makes them just like daddy—complete with quirky humor, inaccessible characters, bizarro atmosphere, and a general sense of obscurity underlining the whole. Though it may not be fair to judge a filmmaker’s work to that of their parent, he’s a blatant stylistic influence, so the comparison would be made regardless of their family ties. Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s new film Surveillance, her first since the disturbing Boxing Helena from 1993, feels like something from her father’s strange-but-intriguing Fire Walk with Me and Wild at Heart era, except all around less interesting. Her yarn centers on two eccentric FBI agents interviewing witnesses of a mysterious string of murders conducted by a local serial killer in Backwoods, USA. (Sound familiar? If you watched television in the early 1990s, it should.) She even casts the leading man from her dad’s Lost Highway, Bill Pullman, who delivers a characteristically peculiar performance, per his usual for the family. But at least the story follows a linear narrative path and won’t leave moviegoers scratching their heads asking What the hell just happened? like something by Pappa Lynch might.
But enough about David Lynch. What does Jennifer do so wrong? She begins with FBI agents Hallaway (Pullman) and Anderson (Julia Ormond) arriving at a police station where the rattled witnesses wait. They’re both abnormal types, each very moody and uttering dialogue that makes us wonder if they’re the very killers being investigated. At the local police station, Captain Billings (Michael Ironside) begrudgingly welcomes them along with his two redneck officers, beginning yet another cliché movie conflict between cops and Feds. The witnesses—including drug fiend Bobbie (Pell James), little girl Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), and disturbed cop Jack (Kent Harper)—convene to three separate rooms to be questioned simultaneously on camera while Hallaway sits back and watches the three interviews progress on monitors.
Described via flashbacks, the respective stories each contain that Lynch brand of weird-for-weird’s-sake nonsensicality, where suddenly she cuts away to some slow-motion, metaphoric imagery that squanders her already dragging pace. On their own, the stories are anecdotal at best, until they converge into a bloody outcome. Two cops (Harper and French Stewart) toy with passersby, rifling out the tires of random drivers and laughing about it just for something to do. They intersect with a happy family of four (father Hugh Dillon, mother Cheri Oteri, and kids Simpkins and Kyle Briere) and two stoners (Mac Miller and James) on the highway. Their guns drawn as part of a sick traffic stop joke, these lawmen are almost as bad as the killers that conduct the ensuing slaughterfest, which commences when a suspicious white van comes barreling up the road.
Worse than the run-of-the-mill series of characters in this silly plot, any attentive viewer will figure out what’s coming long before it’s revealed. We predict the inevitable twist within the first few scenes of the film, rendering everything subsequent unsurprising and rather bland. Written by daughter Lynch and actor Harper, the story seems constructed piece by piece without consideration of the whole. You can imagine them asking Wouldn’t it be cool if… and then stitching a number of those ifs together into something resembling a scenario. So several ideas or individual scenes within contain some ingenuity, but when assembled they’re sloppy and desperate to be labeled abnormal.
Dependent on its back-and-forth structure, Surveillance makes the worst kind of thriller, because the only reason we’re watching is to see what happens and make sure our guesses about the ending are correct. Sure enough, they are. Though Lynch’s tone may be unconventional next to your standard police procedural, it’s drenched in the same shade of black established by her father. However wild and crazy she tries to be, it all feels rather mild, pointlessly arty, and forcibly demented, so that we sense her trying to shock us as the movie progresses. Instead of losing her audience in the show, we consider everything she’s doing as it’s being done, and therefore her film fails to involve the audience like a good thriller should.