Jennifer Lynch fell off the cinematic map after receiving a critical trouncing (well deserved in my opinion) for her first film, Boxing Helena (1993), which many suggested was only made due to her famous filmmaker father, David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway). After an absence of fifteen years, she returns with an arguably improved follow-up in the form of a pulp inspired mystery/thriller carrying deep horror undertones. Surveillance (2008) flew under popular audience radar with a limited cinematic release (though it did make the rounds at many festivals with Lynch being the first woman to win best director at the New York City Horror Film festival) while also being available through subscriber service, HDNet. It now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson and Sam Holloway (played by David Lynch alumni Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman respectively) are tasked with untangling conflicting accounts of a serial killer related roadside massacre from the three survivors (a fanatic cop, a young girl and a drug addict/addled woman). Each interrogant provides contrary details of the incident (which you are not sure are outright lies or different perspectives) while the intertwined flashbacks slowly clue you in to what transpired. By the time the hyped up plot twist bursts forth (the back cover of the BD openly touts it in a blurb, so I do not think I am giving anything away), I had already guessed correctly but found myself no less affected by this thoroughly sinister flick.
The young Lynch has a big legacy to live up to and proves to be her father’s daughter with his notable influence present in the prominent eeriness and use of violence. These dimensions are wrapped in a narrative delving into human suffering in such a visceral manner (Jennifer states in the supplements her father called her “the sickest bitch” he knows) that the casual moviegoer in search of escapist fare will not endure. In a few instances, the film goes over the top, especially on the gore meter with the demented crash scene that has serious shock value (it’s a major WTF moment). And thankfully black humor (a Lynch staple) is utilized at calculated points to break the tension (Pullman is exemplary here).
Yet Jennifer does not mimic daddy to the point of being overly derivative with minimal inclusion of Mr. Lynch’s impenetrably surreal art house mentality. Instead we receive maniacal character portrayals soaked in a healthy dose of nerve rattling suspense so palatable that I caught my fingernails digging grooves into my armrest. You will not be sure whether the bored, perverse cops (one played by French Stewart of 3rd Rock From the Sun fame in a perspective altering role) who get their jollies by psychologically torturing random motorists are any better than the killer being hunted.
The movie’s third act builds to the aforementioned twist that I saw coming but did not lessen its impact being enacted in a deliciously unhinged fashion. If Surveillance were only a one trick pony whose goal was to pull the rug out from under the audience with its ending, it would have played out weakly. However, the revelation stacks well with the menacing atmosphere throughout, and even if it does not “make” the movie, it certainly does not “break” it either.
For anyone who will demean Surveillance as depraved, I can only suggest that this is not a movie for you. It definitely requires suspense of disbelief, and is not for the squeamish, which I cannot stress enough with many seriously disturbing moments. Yet throughout I found myself fascinated from a voyeuristic perspective taking in the plain creepy aesthetic and great chemistry between the actors (Pullman and Ormond most notably).
Surveillance’s contrived visuals are so stylish it is hard to know if the 1080p AVC encode does much wrong by normal standards. Flashback sequences display a manipulated contrast with whites blown out to the point that delineating the edge of objects can be an effort (and slightly eye fatiguing). Primaries (most specifically reds) are over saturated and grain runs rampant; yet blacks are solidly rendered and detail can be impressive.
The “current time” interrogation scenes take on a subtler but still gritty look presenting blacks ranging from washed out to crushed. There is a good bit of visual noise (not grain) that makes for a low budget feel that I am leaning towards being intentional rather than any encoding deficit. Some edge enhancement may be present in these sequences, but it is mixed in with the purposeful appearance to the point it is not necessarily distracting. The edgy look of the high-def visuals supports the tone of the film well with both arguably being an acquired taste.
The only audio option is a 5.1 English DTS-HD Master (24 bit/48 Khz) surround mix that is responsible for securing a number of scares throughout. It is not a gimmicky track sporting a restrained score and reserved surround use. Yet when the rears are called into duty, they add to the edginess. Dialog, environmental effects and expressions of violence (gunshots, punches, etc) come through with solid clarity mostly anchored in the front channels though your subwoofer will be engaged when necessary. It is definitely not a demo quality high-def soundtrack but one that integrally supports the unnerving ambiance. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Commentary – Director Jennifer Lynch along with Mac Miller and Charlie Newmark (two of the actors) provide a seriously amped up feature length track. Their camaraderie is palatable as the constantly shifting focus ranges over much trivia from the production with sustained joking around throughout. Jennifer’s passion for the movie making process is more than obvious, and she has no filter just letting loose with whatever vulgarities come to mind (including many crude jokes and comments on which cast members she wants to sleep with). Not the most in-depth but one of the liveliest commentaries I have heard.
Surveillance: The Watched are Watching (15:11, HD) – Jennifer and a majority of the main actors provide input on production with a lot of joking, especially playing off the name of the town where they filmed (its called Regina, so you can guess where that goes). While a promotional piece, there are some informative moments throughout though nothing of full documentary level.
HDNet: A Look at Surveillance (4:42, HD) – This acts as an extended trailer giving away a bit too much of the plot. This promo is not recommended watching ahead of time and is only vaguely worth the effort after the fact.
Deleted/Alternate Scenes (12:11, HD) – Two deleted scenes and an alternate ending with optional commentary. I would highly suggest watching with the commentary as, in the main track, Jennifer goes all out on the emotional level explaining why changes were made and why she loves the actors’ performances. The alternate ending is interesting, but I agree with the director’s assessment that it does not serve the movie as well as the theatrical finale.
While Surveillance’s story may waver on the believability scale, particularly the outlandish plot twist, the tenor of this horror infused crime thriller is extremely affecting. As stated, this flick is not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle a “sphincter clenching” level of tension, this could be right up your alley.
Magnolia brings Jennifer Lynch’s sophomore effort to Blu-ray with a transfer that honors the purposely contrived high-def visuals and solid supporting audio. Extras are not amazing, but the crazy commentary track is definitely worth a listen. I am glad to see Jennifer came back to filmmaking after fifteen years with an improved product that provides a memorable experience in high-def.
– Robert Searle