Saturday, March 13, 2010

Surveillance (Lynch 2008)

Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s 2008 film Surveillance is a rather slippery little film. It really isn’t a mystery, yet it is structured like one; it is a narrative film, yet the narrative is almost entirely irrelevant; it is a film that is all about observation, yet ironically it is a film which works against the audience needing to be observant. Surveillance is a paradox, one which is as frustrating as it is rewarding.

Surveillance tells the tale of two FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) who arrive at a police station in the middle of nowhere. Three individuals have just survived a run in with two serial killers being hunted by the FBI, where their family, friends and partners have been slaughtered. One survivor is a police officer (Kent Harper), another is a drug addicted young woman (Pell James) , and a little girl (Ryan Simpkins). Each one tells their side of the story, under video surveillance. Yet, what is really being observed as these tales are told?

As noted earlier, Surveillance is a film which is structured like a mystery, complete with a “twist” reveal in the latter third of the film. However, the mystery itself is almost entirely solvable from the time the film begins. While normally this would be the sign of bad screenwriting and directing, I don’t believe that this is the case here. Lynch has crafted a world in the film which is deliberately cartoonish, populated with characters who lack any psychological depth, and who run entirely upon impulse, revelling in their excesses. This approach works entirely counter to the very concept of mystery, which is rooted in the hidden and obscure. This contrast between genre and style is the crux of the film’s overall critique: the loss of depth and complexity in a mediated world. This is a world of wannabe liars and con artists, incapable of effectively hiding who they are, because they do not need to. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own immediate gratification to be observant of anything, or anyone, around themselves. As such, the idea of a mystery has lost all meaning.

Given this subject matter, the tone of Surveillance is appropriately ironic and darkly comedic, making it no surprise that the performances from the cast are appropriately humorous and unsettling. In fact, the cast of the film is one of the stranger ensembles I have seen in a film, with more dramatic actors, such as Pullman, Ormond and the always great Michael Ironside mixing it up with known comic actors French Stewart and Cheri Oteri among others. While I wouldn’t call the performances from the cast here as being the best any of them have done (well, maybe Oteri), Lynch does manage to keep them all on the same page, walking the fine line between comedic and horrific.

However, despite the film’s complexities and engrossing intellectual challenge, I am honestly not sure how well the finished work stands as a cinematic experience. The catch of the approach Lynch takes to her film is that it works against the film as much as it does for it. In structuring it as a mystery, Lynch forces the viewer to have to sit through the motions of a mystery that there is no real investment in. Due to this, the film runs longer than it really needs to. I can help but think that Surveillance would have worked better as a short film rather than a feature, where its approach would have carried more punch and not dragged as much as it does.

In fact, I am not entirely sure Lynch knew how to conclude the film either. After awhile, the film feels like it is searching for the proper point for which to end, never really finding it. It simply runs out of material rather than finding the right material, and becomes intent on wrapping up as many loose ends as possible, even though such efforts are unnecessary.

Still, Surveillance is worth seeking out. It is a flawed film, but a fascinating one as well, skilfully playing with our perceptions of the mystery genre and with our understanding of media. While it might leave those expecting a traditional mystery thriller cold, for those willing to make the effort to grapple with its complexities, there are many rewards to be found.

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