From its deeply unsettling opening scene in which the two sleeping occupants of a lonely motel are brutally murdered by masked intruders, to its stark, haunting denouement, Surveillance is a taut and twisted piece of nightmare cinema. Directed by Jennifer Lynch and co-written by Lynch and Kent Harper, it tells of two FBI agents (Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman) who arrive at a remote police station to interview the three survivors of a horrific roadside massacre, whose contradictory statements offer fragmented recollections of the same harrowing incident. As tensions mount during the interviews, and the events of what happened are slowly pieced together, it soon becomes clear that not everyone is telling the truth, and not everyone is who they appear to be…
Surveillance was Jennifer Lynch’s second feature film (following on from her directorial feature debut, Boxing Helena, 15 years prior) and it is a masterwork of understated dread and unbearable tension. From the sense of unease which prevails throughout, to the sudden eruptions of blunt violence upon the mundanity of everyday life, Lynch’s direction, use of silence and very deliberate pacing offers viewers little respite from the unfurling horror. Her use of space to create discomfort and anxiety is powerfully effective; the wide-open vistas of the desolate, windswept Nebraska plains (which creates a sense of exposure, of being vulnerable out in the open), the cramped confines of the isolated police station (a space one would usually associate with safety and order) and her ability to conjure fear and quiet terror within a seemingly ordinary scenario, cranks the tension to unbearable levels. That much of the horror takes place during broad daylight also adds to the impact.
Lynch collaborated with cinematographer Peter Wunstorf, who used different film stocks when filming the survivors’ flashbacks and recollections of the same incident. The version of events as relayed by the angry cop (co-writer Kent Harper) is rendered in dreary sepia to not only convey his boredom and nonchalance but reflect how he sees himself as a John Wayne-inspired rebel in the middle of nowhere. Addict Bobbi’s (Pell James) POV of events are highly saturated to express her drug-addled perspective, while the young girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), remarkably perceptive for her age, sees and remembers everything clearly and without hidden motive or agenda. While the use of three different film stocks sounds jarring, Lynch’s execution of this approach is subtle enough to not distract or pull the viewer out of the story.
Many of the characters are flawed and unsympathetic, none are clear cut ‘good’ or ‘bad’. As the story unravels and more of what happened at the side of the road becomes clear, layers are striped back and new elements emerge from each character. The contrast of the complex interior workings of the characters with the wide-open landscapes in which some of the violent events unfold, creates a haunting and intriguing exploration of the nature of evil.