June 30, 2009

Bait And Switch: Surveillance Movie Review

surveillance scene.jpg

I saw the movie Surveillance.

As bad as it was, the movie wasn't the problem.  The problem was the trick they used to get me to see it.

I spoil nothing in telling you that if you can't guess the entire plot in the first nine seconds of the movie then this review won't help you because you probably have had a stroke.

It is about two masked serial killers, the kind whose main ability is to remain totally calm the way no one ever is even when asleep,  while their victims cry, stumble, make astounding errors in judgment and never, ever fight back. 

Two FBI agents travel out to interview (the only three) surviving witnesses of a 6 person gore fest mediated by stupidity.  The agents place the three stereotypes-- a cop, a junkie, and a little girl, what else--  in separate rooms, and set up cameras to monitor all three simultaneous interviews.  The idea is that witnesses are unreliable, or, as the director put it in an interview-- and you're going to want to sit down for this-- versions of the truth change when you are being watched. 

I know, I know.

So why tell this story?  Why should the audience want to see it?   The director explains:

I haven't seen a serial killer film the way I want to see a serial killer film and I want to confuse people about what good and bad look like. I want to break that 'book by its cover' mode and play with that."
Because no one ever suspects "the guy you least suspect." 


The problem is we aren't watching it because we think the director made a new kind of serial killer movie.  We aren't even watching it because we like serial killer movies.  We are watching it because the director is David Lynch's daughter, and David Lynch himself is the executive producer.

We're hoping this is going to be like Twin Peaks II.

"But the funny thing is, he had nothing at all to do with it," Jennifer Lynch says.
It's your movie, I get it.  I know it's hard to come out from a famous parent's shadow and find your own voice, and I'm sure she doesn't want people assuming this is a David Lynch movie, but can you blame us?  It's not like anyone makes any attempts at hiding David Lynch's involvement.  In fact, they take extra special care to bludgeon you in the face with it.

Here's how a woman who wants to be her own kind of director with her own creative vision distances herself from her father: first, she would change her and David's name to pseudonyms or hide them altogether and make the movie posters as different as possible:

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She would cast people who are as un-David Lynch as possible, who invoke in your imagination completely different kinds of movies.  Actors who have never even seen a David Lynch movie, let alone been in one.  As an example, she would be very careful to not cast Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond because, well, you know.

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She would be careful not to shoot scenes or images that call to mind any of her father's work:

fbi caught on tape.JPG

twin peaks and surveillance.JPG

or choose to feature objects that have symbolic importance to her father:


coffee surveillance.JPG
guess which movie I belong to

And putting a haunting image of a disfigured/masked face coming out of the darkness; ethereal sounds, inaudible whispers-- all those are completely out of the question

Whose movie did she think we were going to see?   I'm not saying that Jennifer Lynch has to make movies like David Lynch; nor am I saying I expect her movies to be like David Lynch's, except in the single circumstance that she goes out of her way to tell me it is a David Lynch movie, and make it look like a David Lynch movie.

Which, again, is fine-- but then actually make a David Lynch movie.  No. Instead, she  doubles back and makes the most obvious, conventional movie possible given the budget.  This movie is more linear and predictable than The Honeymooners.


"But the funny thing is, he had nothing at all to do with it," Jennifer Lynch says.

I can see that.  That's the problem. 

In fact, the key stylistic difference between the two Lynches is that Jennifer shoots careful, focused scenes that are incomprehensibly irrelevant to the story.

top secret.JPG 

At first I thought such shots were simply mistakes? but then I read her description of the two killers:

How did you want to see a serial killer film in ways we hadn't seen a serial killer film before?

JENNIFER LYNCH: I hadn't really seen one that had what I considered to be a real examination of how messed up violence and sex and stuff get because the people who hurt have been hurt themselves. Although I don't pinpoint those moments for our characters, I felt like I got an opportunity in the end to examine just how awful and confused that moment became for both of them and that these two killers were never thought of, in my opinion, as anything other than wounds or failures or victims or criminals until they saw each other and then they met each other and decided this was how they were going to live their lives until they couldn't anymore and what a nightmarish thing that is and yet how in love they are and just that dark mess.

I don't know what movie she is talking about, maybe Natural Born Killers or Finding Nemo, but it certainly wasn't Surveillance.  Is it possible the actors and camera guys were working off a different script?

What kind of back story did you envision for these characters? How long do you think they've been at it? How do you think they met?

JENNIFER LYNCH: I think they've been at it for about 8 months in my head. They've been in love for a while but it's a new love. I wanted each of them to write a love note to each other in case something went terribly wrong. If not literally keep it in their back pockets, then imagine that note in their back pockets.

I'd like to see that movie if she ever decides to make it, it sounds awesome.  Meanwhile, what?  The Transformers?   If this is really about understanding the characters, getting into their heads and asking questions they might ask, then explain why it is that a 8 year old girl who watches her family get butchered and then figures out the killers are the FBI agents shows no emotion whatsoever?  She's not sad, she's not terrified. She actually says this: "I can go to the bathroom by myself-- I'm almost 9!"  Maybe she's in shock?  Maybe she's retarded?  We'll never know.

At one point-- right after she asks to go to the bathroom, amazingly-- she has the FBI agent/killer bend down so she can whisper, "I know who you are" in his ear.   She does not  bite it off and run.

two wisperers.JPG 

When she escapes, she does not use the police radio or the phone or a hand grenade.  She does, however,  teleport herself out of the police station and into a field far away, taking only a white bag that I must assume contains oranges.  Why oranges?  Exactly.

in field.JPG


I know playing "here's what would have made the movie a thousand times better" is a fool's game, but if you're making a movie called Surveillance, it should occur to the characters, not to mention the director, to make some use of the actual surveillance cameras which are mounted in the police cars.

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This is my blind spot 

You might say, "well, maybe she didn't know cop cars had cameras in them."  This isn't a comic book where the author has to imagine what might be in a police car, in the same way he has to imagine what a woman looks like in spandex.  Unlike said comic book guy, the director and the actors have physical possession of a cop car.

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I hope the camera doesn't capture me missing an unarmed guy five times and then getting hit in the head from behind by the other guy who snuck up on me in this wide open field on a clear day with no noise

The problem with Surveillance isn't that it is a bad movie-- the story will be formulaic and predictable for anyone over 16, but the directing is solid-- but that it, she,  is suffering from an identity crisis.  Who does she want to be?  Carry on her father's work, or go a different way?  How does she want other people to think of her?  This movie was less a character exploration of two killers than a "trying on of identities" for the director.

Many of David Lynch's movies can be thought of, and interpreted as, dreams.  The events, people, and objects are symbols for other things.  The movie/dreams don't tell a story, they convey emotion, resistances, information about the dreamer.

Maybe this is a David Lynch movie after all.


Another movie review:  Wanted 
Another sort of movie review: Halloween