I love stumbling onto movies I somehow missed during their original release, or that received so little distribution and promotion that I’ve never heard of them before, and that turn out to be fantastic. About a year ago, I discovered Jennifer Lynch’s 2008 film Surveillance at the video store and rented it. I knew nothing about it except that it was Lynch’s return to directing after the fifteen-year absence that followed her troubled debut, Boxing Helena, a movie that was savaged by everyone from movie critics to the National Organization for Women. I didn't think it was a very good movie, but I thought it was a very interesting movie that showed great promise. I was eager to see what she was up to all these years later, and Surveillance took the top of my head off.
I recently watched it again and discovered that I was right the first time. It's the kind of movie I expected not to hold up on a second viewing, but it surprised me. It seems like a simple enough plot. To solve some gruesome murders in a remote and desolate area, two FBI agents and some police officers question witnesses. I know — sounds dull as dirt. But this is one of those movies that can be seriously deflated with too much information, so I will leave you to discover the story as it unfolds.
The cast couldn’t be better, with outstanding performances by everyone. In the starring roles are Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, with support from Michael Ironside, Caroline Aaron, Pell James, Hugh Dillon, Ryan Simpkin, Saturday Night Live veteran Cheri Oteri and others. Pullman’s work is especially startling, but I didn’t see that until the second viewing. Bill Pullman has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor and it’s his own damned fault — he makes us forget he’s acting.
Jennifer Lynch did not fall far from the tree. She shares her father’s knack for showing us the ugly reality just under the surface of perception, and sometimes the ugly reality that's right in front of our faces but being ignored. She shows much more confidence here than in her first movie, as well as an admiral determination to mess up her audience.
Lynch has said that the movie started as a script about witches by Kent Harper. I wish I could observe that transformation as it occurred over time. There is nothing supernatural in the draft of Surveillance that made it to the screen, but I think it is most definitely a horror movie. It does all the things a great horror movie should do — it makes the familiar menacing and makes us look with some dread at ourselves and the world around us — and it is very much a movie of its paranoid, nervous, angry, confused time. I would advise anyone who wants to write horror fiction or films to pay close attention to this movie and take notes. If the horror genre is going to retain any life at all, it’s going to have to leave behind the dusty old vampires, slashers, zombies and inbred hillbilly families and start focusing on the scarier-than-shit fears that make up real life on planet earth today. In Surveillance, Lynch manages to do that in a way that makes the movie disturbing on all kinds of levels.
The movie was, of course, attacked by most critics. It’s too brutal, they said, too ugly. One critic called it “a reprehensible film” and most criticized it for being sadistic and upsetting. That’s like criticizing a musical for having songs. They aren’t reviewing the movie, they’re reviewing the kind of movie it is, and most of them wish it were another kind of movie. That's not honest criticism, that's whining. (Have I mentioned how little attention I pay to movie critics these days?) One critic, though — the San Francisco Examiner’s Rossiter Drake — hits the mark with this paragraph:
“There are those who will be unable to appreciate Surveillance’s unrelenting savagery on any level. Still others will find it affecting and largely uncompromising, the kind of movie that plunges you into a nightmare and skillfully ratchets up the intensity until you’re grateful for a moment’s respite.”
That’s exactly what Surveillance does — it plunges you into a nightmare. The problem is that the nightmare doesn’t differ all that much from the world in which we’re living, where it is sometimes too easy to believe there are no longer any “good guys.”