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07.08.09

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Phaedra

Photograph Courtesy Magnet Releasing
Black & White And Bled All Over: Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond search for a killer on the Canadian plains in 'Surveillance.'

Born to Kill

Jennifer Lynch takes after her father in a tale of FBI agents tracking a serial killer

By Richard von Busack


JENNIFER LYNCH'S Surveillance is a serial-killer film that will please a serial-killer-film-loving audience the most. At times, the movie is smart and scary, and rough as a cob. But its would-be twist ending--made to please the hardest nihilists--moves Surveillance into territory that alienates a vaster audience that might like the identity games and the sometimes funny sadism in the early sections. In these early parts, Lynch takes it almost, but never quite, too far. Then she changes tactics for the big ending.

The action takes place in terrain that seems inherited from Lynch's father, David (who served as executive producer): the bad America in the middle of nowhere. It was filmed on the Canadian prairie, which seems even drier, flatter and more remote than the real American plains. Surveillance seems like a teasing continuation of Twin Peaks, with a pair of black-clad and serious FBI agents on the trail of a pair of killers who arrive in backward Vellacott County.

Lynch teases us with a few shots of an intruder with a face mask that makes him look like a living bowl of oatmeal. Agent Anderson (Julie Ormond) and her partner and friend, Agent Hallaway (Bill Pullman), query the survivors of the mysterious trauma via closed-circuit cameras. The queried include Bobbi (Pell James), a drugged-out, dirty-blonde good-time girl; and Jim (French Stewart), a wounded police officer. Most significant is a little girl named Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), traumatized and silent.

From various perspectives, we see the incidents leading up to the violence on a remote roadway. Jim was one of a pair of bored cops who like to shoot out the tires of passers-by and then shake down the occupants for fun and games; the two cops seem quite capable of murder. Bobbi's own story begins with getting a load of free drugs from a dealer who took one injection too many. Stephanie's family was a squabbling bunch of tourists in a station wagon with a yellow ribbon on the tailgate. Since the wounded copper is already lying by omission, the FBI agents suspect holes in the story.

Ormond is the film's standout. Actresses who keep their own faces, as opposed to going in for cosmetic surgery, pay for it by getting fewer roles. But then they are all the more welcome when you do see them. Ormond has grown into that look of dissatisfaction she used to show in her more ambitious roles.

Lynch demonstrates her family's sense of humor in language: a cop about to take a ride in a car calls "Shotgun!" What Jennifer doesn't have is her father's telltale use of space and time and interior plausibility. She tries to finesse that most tiresome quality of movies about serial killers on the rampage. She makes them omniscient, able to take on rooms full of people, to walk unnoticed, etc. If you're going to make them supernatural, like vampires, you might as well give them fangs.

Film critic J. Hoberman wrote that the grindhouse audience is the most democratic audience in the world--they don't care who gets it, as long as someone gets it. That anything-goes quality makes a particularly ruthless (and illogical) film a hit at midnight, though when you see it during the early evening, it just makes you feel like you stepped in something sticky.


Movie Times SURVEILLANCE (R; 97 min.), directed by Jennifer Lynch, written by Lynch and Kent Harper, photographed by Peter Wunstorf and starring Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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