Thanks to the fine folks at the upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest 09 we’re going to be running a ton of early reviews from their Danger After Dark program, as well as some other of their genre films. For tickets and schedule information check out their
official site.

Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) has been away for a while. Surveillance is the first feature that she’s directed in 15 years, since the critical and box office lashings she received for Boxing Helena. But she’s back and working hard, with both this and Hisss on the way- two very dark films.

Surveillance stars Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as FBI agents who are chasing apparent spree-killers who have just commited another crime. The film is very slow to give you information on what exactly happened, instead focusing on the tensions between the FBI and the local police who up till then have been handling the crime scene. The captain (played by Michael Ironside) tries to ease things a bit, but his men are pretty riled up. One of them was killed during the crime while his partner watched, and he’s the only survivor besides a little girl and a woman strung out on coke (Pell James).

The FBI agents set up cameras and start to record testimony of what happened, and slowly unravel just what happened through a series of flashback scenes. Here is where the film is most interesting, because as everyone tells their story you see what actually played out, and it tends to be quite a bit different than they relate. I love movies that do a little bit of Rashamon, playing on memories and lies to show you the same thing from a different perspective.

It would ruin the experience to talk any further about the characters (and how some of the actors are) because it’s also regrettably a film that relies on a twist, and one that’s incredibly obvious at that. That is the main reason why the film doesn’t really work- it hinges on this plot point that most people with a few brain cells will be able to see coming and anticipate until the reveal finally hits near the end. It’s supposed to be a moment that throws you off, that makes the whole film work and come full circle, but instead it just falls flat.

It’s a shame, because there’s some interesting stuff here. It’s a really violent and gritty film but not without a a steady stream of dark, dark humor. The characters here are not nice people- only the little girl is truly innocent- and the worst are absolutely depraved. The film’s also pretty hard on two of the actors who are playing completely against type- French Stewart, who plays an incredibly disturbed cop (whose favorite pastime is shooting out civilian’s tires on the highway) and Cheri Oteri, who is incredibly hard to take seriously as a mother involved in the incident, no matter how hard you might try. Preconceived notions are a bitch, especially in a movie that changes its mood so frequently like this one.

There are a lot of surreal, dreamy moments that call back to Lynch’s father’s work, but for the most part you’re left watching these disgusting characters and witnessing some of the horrible things they’ve done. I hate to say the movie doesn’t have a point, because I feel that even the worst ones do- but you’ll definitely question what the filmmaker was trying to tell you. Is it that we’re all deceitful and horrible inside? That children are the only pure beings? That Bill Pullman should be in more movies? (Well that last one’s a given….)

Surveillance is a mess of a film, but a strangely watchable one.

6 out of 10