Surveillance (2008)
Magnolia Home Entertainment
Cast: Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond, Pell James
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes

In 1994, Jennifer Lynch received the dubious honor of being named Worst Director by the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation for her debut feature "Boxing Helena." Fifteen years later, her follow-up movie, "Surveillance," received less publicity but makes quite clear the fact that Lynch is not the artistic descendant of her famous father, David Lynch (who executive produced the film). Like her dad, Jennifer Lynch possesses a fascination and intimate affinity with the dark, obsessive nature of human beings. But while David has spent the last three decades exploring the disturbing undercurrents of DayGlo Americana—and more recently, Hollywood—through the twisted logic of dreams, Jennifer is content to simply throw her own obsessions on the screen with little care for cohesion or direction. "Surveillance" feels less like a serious movie and more like a checklist of disturbing fantasies from an antisocial teenager whose driving goal is to shock and repulse in order to feel special.

The film opens with a brutal, fragmented murder scene that might have drifted out of one of David Lynch's nightmares with its guttural screams and hallucinatory atmosphere. Evoking the style of her father's work right off the bat is Jennifer Lynch's first misstep, as it sets up viewer expectations that she lacks either the skill or the desire to meet. The movie continues as two FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) arrive in the small, dusty town to investigate the series of murders that have been occurring. They are begrudgingly welcomed into the local police station to interview three witnesses—a young drug addict (Pell James), an injured police officer (Kent Harper), and a frightened little girl (Ryan Simpkins)—who were recently involved in a violent incident that resulted in several deaths. In "Rashomon"-style accounts, each witness gives his or her version of the story, withholding or changing certain details to save face. Unlike Kurosawa, Lynch shows us flashbacks that reveal the actual events as opposed to the distortions recounted by the witnesses, and the truth is not pretty.

With corrupt cops who pass the time shooting at passing motorists' tires, cokeheads who take advantage of their dealer's sudden death, and vacationing parents who barely notice their children in the backseat, Lynch makes her characters undeniably complicit in the tragedies that befall them. Indeed, the majority of the film seems to be spent wallowing in the sheer nastiness of the victims' lifestyles, as if daring the audience to root for their deaths, thus making us just as complicit. As intriguing as that may sound, a ludicrous yet all too predictable final twist shifts the focus of the movie so dramatically that it basically renders everything that came before it pointless. Lynch seems to believe that she is being subversive, but all she is subverting are her own narrative manipulations. Rather than pulling the story into greater perspective, the final revelation serves only as a defiant middle finger to anyone expecting some sort of depth to emerge from this mess.

If the twist is the movie's worst component, getting there is no entertaining task either. The film plods along at a snail's pace, meandering over useless exposition and belying its 97-minute running time. It is staggering to think that a film could be so horrifically nihilistic and so painfully boring at the same time, but Lynch has done it. Fascinating performances by Julia Ormond and especially Bill Pullman, who makes some odd but effective choices, deserve better material. They bring humanity to their characters, but Lynch doesn't see them as human. For her, they are only extensions of her sick landscape of sadism and depression.

Lynch displays some imagination in her weird casting of comedians French Stewart and Cheri Oteri as, respectively, one of the sadistic cops and the little girl's indifferent mother. But even that is only symptomatic of her empty perversity. Her basic story is not without potential as a trashy thriller, but Lynch deliberately avoids convention without taking it to a higher level. Instead, the movie falls into a narrative limbo, denying us the expected pleasures of the genre while adding nothing new or exciting to it. There is no substance beneath the film's unsettling imagery or violent content, and it plays like an amateur's desperate cry for attention. "Surveillance" is a reprehensible film, an exercise in being nasty for the sake of being nasty, but with no style or clear sense of purpose.

The film is available on Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment, and the transfer appears to be as good as it can possibly be. Presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the movie is sharp and crisp. Black levels are rich, and colors appear deliberate, sometimes muted and sometimes brightly saturated. A variety of film stocks and digital video were used for the movie, some grainier than others, and this transfer seems to accurately reflect that. As a result, this is not a pristine image and probably not the best picture to show off your Blu-ray system, but this showcases the film at its best visual quality.

An English DTS 5.1 Master Audio track is the only audio option. It delivers the dialogue and music with good clarity and provides some good punch to the violent sound effects. English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are also available.

Obviously not sharing her father's noted disdain for DVD commentary tracks, Jennifer Lynch joins actors Mac Miller and Charlie Newmark for a rather inconsequential one here. It's all very jokey, with the three getting a big kick out of the fact that they filmed the movie in Regina (rhymes with vagina), Saskatchewan, milking that name for all its worth throughout both the commentary and the following featurette.

"Surveillance: The Watched Are Watching" is a 15-minute look at the making of the film. Like the commentary, this is a mostly lighthearted affair, showing just how much fun the actors and director had making the film.

Up next is "HDNet: A Look at Surveillance." At five minutes, this is clearly more promotional than informative.

Two very bizarre deleted scenes and an alternate ending are provided with optional commentary by Lynch, Miller, and Newmark. It's clear why none of these were used, but they are interesting just for their weirdness, particularly the deleted scene labeled "Latex Love."

Perhaps it isn't fair to compare Jennifer Lynch to her brilliant father, but the nature of her work certainly invites the connection. David Lynch is an artist, curious about the world around him and drawn to honestly explore it in all of its conflicting beauty and ugliness. Jennifer Lynch is not an artist; she's just posing as one. Her "Surveillance" is no deeper than the most recent summer blockbusters, but it may be a good deal emptier and is far more pretentious.