Yes, it is rampant with cliche. Yes, it is diagrammed and choreographed and blue-printed to the brink of overstatement. Yes, the acting is campy and weirdly expectant. Yes, the climactic 'twist' is easily seen more than the proverbial mile away. Yet none of these glaring flaws (and I suppose they do glare quite a bit) manage to deter much from the ghastly fun that is Jennifer Chamber Lynch's Surveillance. And this is the same woman who gave us the catastrophically denounced Boxing Helena almost sixteen years ago. Isn't it?
Well first, before going on, allow me the inevitability of bringing up some back story to flesh out our present story. The year is 1993 and Jennifer Lynch, daughter of surrealist auteur David Lynch, fresh off his Twin Peaks days (the younger Lynch was also involved in that project as the writer of the best-selling tie-in book, "The Diary of Laura Palmer") becomes a first time filmmaker with a psychological horror tale called Boxing Helena. The almost universal hatred spewed toward her debut work was, in essence, a critical stoning to death. I believe the late Gene Siskel was her only champion out on the front lines. After this knock-out wallop, Ms. Lynch dropped out of the spotlight, fell into the bottle and ending up nearly dying in an auto accident. Her career pretty much kaput. The poor girl never stood a chance.
Though the film was bad (and it certainly was, though not nearly as much a mess as was first reported) this critical drubbing was surely more than a bit unfair. Unfortunately for Ms. Lynch, it was also inevitable. After all, her work as a director was arbitrarily put up in comparison to her father's oeuvre and let's face it, one would be quite hard-pressed to find many non-related filmmakers who could compare favorably in such an auspicious spotlight let alone a daughter who wants nothing more than to be something on her own. The poor girl never stood a chance. Yet many years passed and eventually the fiasco of Boxing Helena faded into cinematic obscurity. A mere footnote in popular culture. Just another in a long line of bad movies.
Which brings we the viewers, and Jennifer Chambers Lynch the filmmaker, back to 2009 and a sort of rescuing of herself and of her career. The much belated, and much worried about and much bally-hooed sophomore event that is the release of Surveillance is finally upon us. As I already more than alluded to in my opening salvo, it is a giddy danse macabre that reaches far beyond its own flaws - and even further beyond the epic disaster that was Boxing Helena (henceforth known as the Film-that-Must-Not-Be-Named out of respect for a resurrected Ms. Lynch). In fact one can see now, both the influence of her father and a voice all her own. One can see past Box...er I mean the Film-that-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Being the story of several very mysterious and very grisly murders, Lynch the younger weaves a bizarre little tale of murder, mayhem and a podunk town full of freakin' weirdos that plays out like Rashomon in Twin Peaks. A pair of oddball FBI agents show up in said podunk town. This is a town that never gets a name (though a midlands Twin Peaks is subliminally suggested) and it is a town that is probably better off without one. These agents (not far removed from Agent Cooper in daddy's warped nightmare world) are here to investigate a bloody highway massacre that comes to eventual light, piece by piece, through the interrogation of three witnesses. A bleach-blonde meth head (played with a filthy sexuality by Pell James), a kooked-out cop (co-screenwriter Kent Harper) with delusions of Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and a nine year old moppet (a surprisingly unprecocious Ryan Simpkins) who knows much more than she is saying. Through intrusive interrogations, all watched on closed circuit TVs (the titular surveillance!) the agents must unravel what has happened while getting varying versions of the truth from their respective interrogatees.
As I said, Lynch's film is full of flaws, but somehow we get around that through the ghoulish antics of pretty much everyone (innocent or guilty) involved. Surveillance has a surreal ambiance to its procedural proceedings that make one instantly think of the elder Lynch. This time though, the comparison is a little less cataclysmic than last time. The casting of TV comedians such as French Stewart and Cheri Oteri in far from hilarious roles (okay, so there's a certain guilty hilarity to much of the film) adds to the surreal nature of the film. It is the leads though that get to have all the fun. The criminally underrated Bill Pullman (another of the elder Lynch's influences) and the long lost cinematic face of the future, Julia Ormond (strangely enough, she has never been more disturbing yet she has also never been hotter) play the queer duck FBI agents with such gleeful aplomb that no matter how obvious certain plot twists are, we embrace them with our own sort of gleeful aplomb.
Ghastly and grisly indeed, but also quite kinky and lurid at times (one character sexually straddles another while yet another strangles them from behind). Lynch exposes an underworld that perhaps never goes near as deep as the monkey-shit-fucked-up universe her father schmoozes around in (though we do get the family trademark good cup of coffee!) but she has us going around in slaphappy circles, even in its obligatory obviousness. In the end though, the question remains, is the film a success? Early reviews, though not as universally panning as sixteen years ago, would give an affirmative, though not definitive no to such a question. As I write this, I peek at a review of a quite prestigious critic I more oft than not agree with and see a particularly scathing rebuff of the film (and my own thoughts on it). For my part, I would give a bouncy yes to the question at hand. Let me be this decade's Gene Siskel and champion the new and improved Jennifer Chambers Lynch and her new and improved provocative perversions.
Okay, so maybe Boxing Helena (let's say the name once again!) was not the total mess many claimed it to be - it did have an interesting premise and the tongue-in-cheek heart and soul of its director. I wasn't yet working as a critic at the time. And perhaps Surveillance isn't quite as good as I believe it to be either. I have been known to be wrong on rare occasions. And perhaps this auteuristic resurrection I speak of isn't quite as pronounced or revelatory as I claim it to be. Most still claim Lynch only gets her movies made through the legacy clause. And her father is a heavy influence on her work (consciously or not). Yet I still stand by my declaration. Surveillance, despite its flaws, is a ghastly dee-light. And hey, who isn't excited to see Ms. Lynch's next film - a horror film about a snake woman with the elegantly b-movie title of Hisss? I know I am. [06/25/09]