Thursday, September 03, 2009

Surveillance: Grade C

Surveillance (2008)
Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Ryan Simkins; Co-writer and Director Jennifer Chambers Lynch.

Pullman and Ormond are FBI agents called into investigate a horrible multiple homicide on a stretch of desolate rural highway near Santa Fe (although the film was shot in Saskatchewan and looks like it.) Two lunatic highway cops make a sport out of shooting out a tire on a passing car, then cruising up to the car and sadistically tormenting its occupants. In the second episode of that game, they hassle a nice middle class family on vacation, and a couple of high druggies stumble upon the scene, then in the midst of all that, there is a traffic accident. The outcome is a high body count.

Pullman and Ormond interview the one surviving policeman, the one surviving druggie, and the only survivor of the family vacation, a little girl (Simkins). The interviewees give self-exculpatory accounts but a series of omniscient flashbacks show us what really happened, more or less. The flashbacks use the annoying and manipulative technique I call “camera suspense,” where the camera’s point of view is restricted to create artificial suspense. Unlike the Roshomon technique, the camera is not attached to a character. We see arbitrary extreme close-ups and sub-second cuts. It’s a substitute for careful writing.

David Lynch’s films usually didn’t make much sense either, so why should his daughter’s? At least there were no rabbit-headed people walking around. The film is more on the side of realism than surrealism, but not by much. You must accept a steady stream of implausibilities, such as sadistic, psychopathic cops running amok, shooting out tires on a moving car with a pistol at 500 yards, the FBI investigating a highway accident, and so on. Even the victims do not act realistically. And the ending, while a genuine surprise, is unmotivated, the kind of ending that negates everything you have seen so far, leaving you with nothing. It demonstrates contempt for the audience.

Having mentally disturbed characters excuses a writer from having to engage the human condition, because crazy people might do anything at all without obvious motivation. The technique is a hallmark of poor writing.

On the plus side, the movie is well photographed, well-directed, and very well-edited. Acting is above average, even from Pullman, a familiar character actor who shows his chops. The visual imagery is striking and memorable, with lots of gun violence and plenty of blood. Dialog is crisp. If there had been better story it would have been a real winner, but perhaps that’s asking too much from a Lynch.

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