It takes one heckuva film or performance for me to be swayed into a position of utter allegiance to an actor, writer or director, but with SURVEILLANCE, writer/director Jennifer Lynch has done just that, solidifying my belief in her unique vision, style and solid execution of a project. Already known for pushing the envelope thanks to “Boxing Helena”, with SURVEILLANCE, Lynch pushes the psychological thriller envelope even further, captivating, enthralling and intriguing us with her own intensity in a cat and mouse game of twists and turns and the unexpected, all linked together by the voice of an innocent child.
The highway can be a lonely place. Driving along, mile after mile, with nothing but the barrenness of golden brown dying field grass to keep you company, you become oblivious to the world beyond the tinted glass of a car window. If you are a family going on vacation, mom and dad do nothing but chatter, reminisce about the past and ignore the kids in the back seat who are plugged into iPods or MP3 players or beating the crap out of each other. If you are young and in love and strung out on drugs, you tune out the world to everything but for taking your next hit or professing your undying drugged-out love for one another. If you are local cops bored out of your mind and just itching for a little excitement, playing heinous games with travelers is the answer to your prayers. And if you have murder, mayhem and lust on your mind, preying on innocent travelers in local motels or drivers faced with road trouble, well…….that opens up a whole new can of wax, er, make that latex.
Officers Jack Bennett and Jim Conrad are, shall we say, not some of law enforcement’s finest. Getting their kicks from harassing drivers with false speed traps or shooting out their tires so as to cause accidents or at the very least, forcing drivers to stop so that Bennett and Conrad can “have their way with them”, these two long for some real excitement – serial killers, murders, gun-fights. Little do they know, they are about to get their wish. Their supervisor, Captain Billings, is just the opposite. He enjoys and appreciates his sleepy town with zero crime. But that statistic suddenly changes with the appearance of FBI agents Sam Hallaway and Elizabeth Anderson who arrive at police headquarters to investigate shootings on the highway. Interestingly, their arrival is concurrent to a call for investigation at a local motel where some guests were found beaten to death. And as if this madness isn’t enough for Captain Billings, what about the arrival of Officer Bennett with one hysterical Bobbi Prescott, and a quiet, frightened little girl named Stephanie, all of whom are the only survivors of a horrific murder spree out on the highway.
Taking charge of the investigation, Hallaway assumes a position of surveillance, observing the interrogation process on monitors in another room while Anderson elects to question Stephanie, who just witnessed the killing of her mother, step-father and brother, and does so with the loving touch of a mother. Or does she? Bennett, who witnessed the death of his partner, is grilled by Billings and another officer. Prescott, who watched her boyfriend get killed, also gets her turn to tell her tale. And so we retrace the events of the day. Everyone was involved in the same ultimate crossing of paths and fate. Everyone was on scene together. Yet, everyone has a different story. But who saw what? And what did they see? And who is, or isn’t, telling the truth? And just what is it that little Stephanie sees and knows?
Bill Pullman knows of my great admiration and affection for both him and his work. Actor, teacher, writer, holder of a doctorate, and one fine cowboy to boot, Pullman is one of the most under-rated actors of our time. Unassuming, affable, likeable to a fault, his performances are always rock solid, enjoyable and often inspiring. Celebrating diversity in his roles, Pullman has gone from being lovestruck with Sandra Bullock to the President of the United States fighting aliens to a vintner in “Bottle Shock” to a string of roles in smaller films that just blow your mind with the power of his performances. I didn’t think it possible Pullman could surpass his performance as Bill Frich in “Your Name Here” but boy was I wrong because in SURVEILLANCE, as Sam Hallway, Pullman gives us the most fascinating, intriguing, stimulating and textural performance of his career. Totally out of character from anything Pullman has ever done, as Hallaway, he goes to the extreme giving us a psychological profile that is beyond compelling. He turns on a dime. He wins you over with a smile and that devilish twinkle in his eye. But he always has this edge, these pieces that don’t quite fit, which draws you ever deeper into the character and the story. And then, there’s Pullman with Julia Ormond. All I can say is, I don’t know how Lynch didn’t get an NC-17 rating on this film given a few scenes between Pullman and Ormond!
I remember the first time I saw Julia Ormond on screen. It was in “First Knight” with Gere and Connery. All I could think about was how expressive her face and her eyes were. That has been one of her true gifts over the years and now, as Agent Elizabeth Anderson, it is her ability to speak volumes without uttering a word that give us this electrifyingly complex character and performance. Her chemistry with Pullman is undeniable and between the two, the tacitly and tactilely nuanced layers of communication are mesmerizing.
More than holding her own against veterans Pullman and Ormond is Ryan Simpkins. As Stephanie, she is luminous innocence personified. With minimal dialogue, she masters the character with a mere look, melting your heart as she recounts the day’s events by drawing pictures with paper and crayons. Key to Simpkins’ performance though is her ability to observe and to do so surreptitiously with a shy glance. Already having appeared opposite DiCaprio and Winslet in “Reservation Road” and now Pullman and Ormond, I hope to see great things from her in the future. Also joining this ensemble is Pell James as Bobbi Prescott. A true force of nature, James brings a dynamic yet grounded energy to the coked-out Bobbi. layering that with a very maternal, protective relationship with Simpkins’ Stephanie. She beautifully balances the look of sexy good-girl with a bad girl persona.
Rounding out the cast is a tour-de-force performance by French Stewart who is simply killer as the demented and twisted Officer Conrad. This is a real casting coup by Lynch. Also joining in the fun are two of my long time favorite character actors, Michael Ironside as Captain Billings and Caroline Steiner as his secretary Janet. Both are welcome faces recognizable to you all. And not to be missed is Cheri Oteri who has a serious turn as Stephanie’s ill-fated mother.
Describing her casting process as a “blissful and tricky one”, Lynch wrote the part of Hallaway for Pullman who, for whatever reason, passed on the role the first go round. Thankfully, with the passage of time and a myriad of rewrites, two weeks before going to camera, the actor who was cast, backed out, leading Lynch right back to Pullman. This time, within two hours of speaking with Lynch, he called her back and said, “I’m in.” For Lynch, “it was a dream come true.” Ormond, on the other hand, much to Lynch’s surprise, came looking for Lynch, asking for the part. As for Simpkins, Lynch wanted “a child” and not a little performer and looked for someone who reminded her of her own daughter, filled with childlike honesty.
Excited by the idea that she could “make a serial killer film that [I] hadn’t seen before that really examined how ****ed up it is when people are wounded and then become people who wound…and how the lines between sex and violence get blurred”, Jennifer Lynch brings us a new level of psychological terror with SURVEILLANCE. (And for my money, Lynch surpasses the talents of her father, David Lynch.) Calling on her own personal experience as “the kid in the back seat who saw something on a cross country trip and wasn’t listened to”, spurned the idea for the disturbing, alternate reality of SURVEILLANCE, along with ponderings of cops with power and firepower, cookie cutter FBI agents “who got something kinda crazy going on” and a “cookie cutter cop who isn’t at all what he seems to be.”
A gifted storyteller, Lynch’s style is that of layering a cake. She builds and builds, moving you ever closer to the edge of your seat, intentionally layering the complexities of the story, doling out information piecemeal, all of which aids in the understanding of why characters are lying, why each is “both good and bad and very human therefore”, increasing the interest and cinematic foreplay before the climactic revelations. The tension is intense and vivid and plays to the intelligence of an audience, raising the bar.
Very telling of the caliber of person Jennifer Lynch is, is the manner in which Ryan Simpkins filmed. Not believing “anybody needs to suffer to make something good” or “be unhappy to make an unhappy scene”, Lynch would “inspire Ryan to evoke something without torturing her”, such as talking about cooking brussel sprouts which would “get her to look the way I needed her to look without torturing her.” Lynch firmly believes there was no need for her to see certain things or read the entire script to get a true rich performance. Key is the manner in which Lynch wrote the character, finding the peace that comes from a child during trauma.
Talking with Lynch is one experience I will not soon forget and one I hope to repeat many times over. She has a clarity of thought that is unparalleled as is her enthusiasm for this film and for life itself. Involved in every aspect of the film, Lynch’s decisions are crystalline and calculated, including selection of her technical crew, starting with cinematographer Peter Wunstorf and his extraordinary work. Key to the sensory effects of the film are the various color pallets and patinas. A golden starkness outside. A muted palette with an occasional punch of color. Black and white surveillance monitors. Deliberate on the part of Lynch and Wunstorf, it plays into the concept that “everyone’s memory looks different.” Stephanie’s sharp, Crayola-crayon, clear. The drug addicts are over-exposed. Everything is a bit too bright, a bit too washed and yet “hyper-real.” The cop is patinaed in a golden auburn fashion to reflect his “legend in his own mind.” Adding to the scenic looks are the individualized looks for each character. Shot with four different types of Kodak film stock which were treated to create five different looks, it fell to Wunstorf to translate the definitive looks in Lynch’s mind into a perfect balance on film.
The icing on the cake is Todd Bryanton’s score.
Taut, edgy, titillating, thrilling. SURVEILLANCE is a masterful examination into the dark side of the human condition. I’m already looking for the sequel. (Not to mention the DVD which I have been assured by Lynch, Pullman and Ormond has many many more thrills and surprises).
Sam Hallaway – Bill Pullman
Elizabeth Anderson – Julia Ormond
Stephanie – Ryan Simpkins
Bobbi Prescott – Pell James
Officer Conrad – French Stewart
Written and directed by Jennifer Lynch.