Let the debate rage on. There are those who will argue, without any serious objection from me, that Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance is a sadistic bit of pulp fiction that turns on a third-act twist almost too fantastical to stomach. And there are those who will laud it as a taut, twisted crime procedural that veers into some seriously dark territory for a finale that stays with you long after the lights have gone up.
There are merits to both arguments. Lynch, daughter of David and the director of 1993’s curiously misguided Boxing Helena, in which a surgeon incapacitates his muse by needlessly amputating her arms and legs, is no stranger to dicey, lurid material, the kind her father (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) has favored over the years. Here, she finds it once again in the tale of Mickey and Mallory types combing the Santa Fe desert for fresh kills.
Whether Lynch’s mystery killers are any more despicable than the cops who hunt them is a legitimate concern. For all their righteous indignation at the thought of butchers in their midst, Officers Jack (Kent Harper, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynch) and Jim (French Stewart) seem less interested in catching crooks than in torturing motorists with terrifying indifference along the lonely stretch of highway they patrol.
Arriving on the scene to dispense with the sadomasochistic shenanigans and jumpstart the investigation are two F.B.I. agents – played by favorites of the elder Lynch, Bill Pullman (Lost Highway) and Julia Ormond (Inland Empire) – whose interviews with three witnesses reveal very different versions of the slaughter. It is only after Hallaway (Pullman) seems to piece together the shockingly brutal puzzle that Surveillance lurches into overdrive, leaving good taste and sanity in the dust.
It has been suggested that Jennifer Lynch’s movies would hardly be worth a second look if not for her respected surname, and though her style seems obviously derivative at times – perhaps in homage, she even references one of her father’s favorite talking points, a good cup of coffee – she seems less inclined to defuse Surveillance’s considerable tension with quirky in-jokes and impenetrable stylistic indulgences than her dad might have been.
Even at its craziest, Surveillance is more straightforward than most Lynchian concoctions, and as gleefully depraved as they come. There are moments of darkly comic relief – even as a river of blood rises, the film is far from humorless, honoring another family tradition – but this is a movie intent on probing the depths of human suffering rather than mocking them.
Is it difficult to watch, and sometimes hard to believe? Sure. 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.
Surveillance is available via cable's OnDemand. It opens Friday, July 3, at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For showtimes, click here.