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Monday, August 17, 2009

SURVEILLANCE -- DVD review by porfle

Jennifer Lynch may not have quite as bizarre a visual sense as her dad, but as far as being able to write and direct a mindbending and deliriously fun movie goes, the acorn didn't fall very far from the tree. Weird as it may seem to describe such a shocking and gory film as "fun", I had a great time watching SURVEILLANCE (2008) twist and turn its way through a constantly surprising storyline to its demented end.

Two visiting FBI agents, Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) and Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) are summoned to a smalltown police station to help clear up a multiple murder which occurred on a desolate stretch of highway. Three interrogation rooms are set up with Hallaway manning the surveillance monitors. Bloody, battered Officer Bennet (Kent Harper), injured in the attack and extremely distraught over the death of his partner Jim Conrad (French Stewart), is a hostile witness who is obviously hiding something. Bobbi (Pell James), a young blonde dopehead, struggles to give a lucid account to a couple of jeering cops. Meanwhile, Anderson tries to coax the story out of Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), a quietly observant little girl who may be the only key to the truth.

The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace and takes its time piecing together flashbacks of what happened from the three disparate perspectives. The two bad-boy cops, Bennet and Conrad, enjoy shooting out tires and terrorizing innocent passersby. A couple of fun-loving hopheads, Bobbi and her boyfriend Johnny (Mac Miller) are out joyriding and getting high. Meanwhile, a station wagon contains a vacation-bound family that includes Mom (Cheri Oteri), stepdad (Hugh Dillon), brother Curtis (Kyle Briere), and little Stephanie. When the druggie couple and the family become the latest victims in Bennet and Conrad's "good cop/bad cop" routine, the terror is just getting started--little do any of them know that two insane, bloodthirsty serial killers, whom we've already seen committing a horrifying home invasion, are on the highway as well, and they're all headed for a catastrophic collision.

The smalltown police station where the interrogations occur is the sort of place where David Lynch might have put fish in the coffee pots, but daughter Jennifer relies on a slowly building air of tension, suspicion, and unease to keep us on edge. There's a definite mistrust and resentment between the cops and the FBI agents that we know can't be good. Officer Bennet, in particular, seems ready to go postal at any moment as the ghastly events on the highway keep churning through his unstable mind. Bobbi has trouble convincing the two inept cops questioning her of anything besides the fact that she's a drugged-out ditz. The only person who seems capable of shedding any light on the matter is Stephanie, the little girl with a knack for noticing things other people miss. Ryan Simpkins is a naturally talented child actress who gives the role a haunting quality.

I wish I could say more about the plot but that would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that there are two major sequences--both explosively violent, gory, and shocking--in which the fertilizer hits the ventilator in a big way. The first takes place out on that desolate highway after the two cops' terrorization of the hapless civilians is finally over and everyone's catching their breath, when suddenly... Metal rends, glass shatters, blood splatters, and people die in really bad ways. Fetchingly cute SNL alum Cheri Oteri is very good here, as is former "Third Rock" star French Stewart. What happens is well-staged and jaw-dropping, and we're left more than a little breathless.

Then comes the big climax in the police station, and I mean that in more ways than one. All the suspicions are out in the open and the truth is revealed at last in a twist that I found satisfyingly twisted even though I pretty much saw it coming. And even then, it just keeps getting twistier. And weirder. And sicker. It's fun to watch the lead actors performing this over-the-top material so well and giving it all they've got. Best of all are Bill Pullman, who gives one of his most interesting performances here as the hangdog FBI agent in the rumpled black suit, and Julia Ormond, who's even better as his partner. I should also mention longtime fan fave Michael Ironside, who gets to play a good guy (or does he?)

Jennifer Lynch proves that she can not only write a scintillating screenplay (with co-writer Kent Harper), but she can also direct it with imagination and style. There's an effective contrast between the claustrophobic station scenes and the expansive highway sequences, which feature some neat tracking shots and take full advantage of those flat, empty Saskatchewan vistas. Lynch also has a knack for working with actors and getting just what she wants out of them while encouraging them to make their own creative contributions.

The DVD on Magnolia's "Magnet" label is 2.35:1 widescreen with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. Bonuses include the making-of featurettes "Surveillance: The Watched are Watching" and "HDNet: A Look at Surveillance." There are also deleted scenes (with commentary), an alternate ending which I'm glad wasn't used even though it's interesting to watch, and a commentary featuring Lynch and castmembers Mac Miller and Charlie Newmark. Spanish subtitles are available.

Jen Lynch doesn't want to imitate her dad--at one point she changed the ending when it occurred to her that she was making a David Lynch movie--and she doesn't have to. She has a distinctive style, and SURVEILLANCE stands on its own as a story that bends reality in all sorts of intriguing ways without becoming self-consciously unreal.

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