SurveillanceA seriously twisted film, the second by Jennifer Lynch, who’s turned in a fine, stylish work that may finally dissipate the stench of her first, the vomitous BOXING HELENA.

Jennifer Lynch’s father David made what is arguably one of the finest-ever feature debuts with ERASERHEAD, which is significant because BOXING HELENA falls at the opposite end of the spectrum. Made when Ms. Lynch was in her early twenties, it’s a silly and amateurish film that’s naturally been subject to a lot of revisionist history. Many of those who panned the film back in ‘93 have since dubbed it a misunderstood masterpiece, but BOXING HELENA (1993) is in fact every bit as shitty now as it was then. Surprisingly enough, 2008’s SURVEILLANCE, following BOXING HELENA by 15 years, actually succeeds where that film failed. Executive produced by David Lynch, SURVEILLANCE was released (unsuccessfully) in the U.S. in June of 2009.

Elizabeth and Sam are Federal Investigators stationed at a remote police station. They’re trying to sort out a bizarre murder that took place on a nearby highway. Three people witnessed the crime: Stephanie, a shell-shocked eight-year-old girl, Bobbi, a young junkie, and Jack, a bad cop. Through oft-contradictory interviews with these three Liz and Sam gradually piece together the particulars of the crime.

Stephanie, her parents and older brother were on vacation, driving down a lonely stretch of highway. Their back tire was shot out by Jack and his equally corrupt partner Jim, who were on a random shooting kick. Bobbi happened to be riding behind the family in a car driven by her boyfriend Johnny. The two parties were manhandled severely by Jack and Jim, at least until Stephanie told them she’d spotted some suspicious activity in a white truck further down the highway. The cops took off after it, not realizing that the truck was actually ahead of them all—and speeding back! The end result was a royal mess that concluded with everyone involved dying horribly except for the three interview subjects.

Speaking of which, it becomes clear that somebody’s covering up some vital bit of information about the crime, which is to say the identities of the truck’s occupants. Those individuals are in fact present inside the police station, and planning on making a grand exit.

Jennifer Lynch’s direction here has been compared to that of her father, and there are many surreal-quirky details that would seem to be inspired by the work of the elder Lynch. A more pertinent comparison to my mind would be the films of the late Donald Cammell, in particular his underrated WHITE OF THE EYE (1987), with its eye for quirky detail and unflinchingly grim view of modern American psychosis. Another comparison is Akira Kurosawa’s classic RASHOMON, in which a crime is related through several contradictory viewpoints. Here, though, the viewpoint is unwavering, showing what really happened even as the participants try and distort the truth through their recollections.

The above may make this film sound like an episodic collection of weirdness, and indeed that’s how it plays at first. You might be surprised, though, at how gripping it becomes as the crime at its center is gradually pieced together and a horrific twist is revealed. The final scenes take the film in another direction entirely, with a finish so twisted it deeply offended Jennifer Lynch’s father (who reportedly told his daughter “You’re the sickest bitch I know!”).

Beyond that the film is quite well made, gritty on those occasions when it needs to be and quite bizarre in others. Lynch also demonstrates an excellent touch with actors, particularly the young Ryan Simpkins as Stephanie. It’s she who holds the film together with all the skill and confidence of a seasoned veteran. As for Ms. Lynch, it’s too early to tell how her oeuvre will shape up, but based on SURVEILLANCE she’s clearly got promise.

Vital Statistics

Lago Film/See Film

Director: Jennifer Lynch
Producers: Marco Mehlitz
Screenplay: Jennifer Lynch, Kent Harper
Cinematography: Peter Wunstorf
Editing: Daryl K. Davis
Cast: Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Pell James, Ryan Simpkins, Cheri Oteri, Michael Ironside, French Stewart, Kent Harper, Hugh Dillon, Gill Gayle