Daughter of darkness

Pub date June 30, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Whether by dint of nature, nurture, or nepotism, Jennifer Lynch’s small resume to date hasn’t fallen far from the paternal tree. Tie-in novel The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer annotated Twin Peaks, doing a good job too, even if one still better left to your own vile imagination. That series’ Sherilyn Fenn wound up starring (after Madonna, and then Kim Basinger, famously dropped out) in 1993’s Boxing Helena, a "controversial" amour fou tale somehow much more intriguingly offensive in anticipation than actuality.

After a very long unexplained hiatus, Lynch is back with her second feature as writer-director. Surveillance again drafts talent from dad’s stable, notably Bill Pullman, star of 1997’s Lost Highway. And again, there’s a certain hollow jonesing after shock value, where David’s cinematic heart of darkness always seemed both frighteningly real and unpinnable. Yet modern desert noir reveling in nastiness, Surveillance does have its sardonic pulp satisfactions.

FBI agents Pullman and Julia Ormond arrive at a dusty rural police station to investigate two murky incidents producing a lot of fresh corpses. Sole survivors are one precocious little girl (Ryan Simpkins), one still-high skank (Pell James), and one very defensive patrolman (co-scenarist Kent Harper).

While their sometimes fibby testimonies are teased out — what really happened being revealed in flashback — three more bodies turn up in grotesque tableau at a nearby motel. Plus, authorities are on high alert for a natural-born thrill-killing couple on the loose, precise whereabouts unknown.

At its core, Surveillance is just cruel, without any true empathy or moral weight attached. But it’s also just clever enough to invite re-viewing, no matter how far off you spy the big twist coming. Lynch has honed her directing chops; things rumble and explode with precision, no matter that credibility wobbles ever wider like an ill-bolted wheel. Some unexpected names (Cheri Oteri, French Stewart) blend seamlessly into a sharp ensemble. With this Jennifer Lynch starts to be interesting on her own — even more since her already-wrapped next, Hisss, is an India-shot horror fantasy based on local mythology. Which, at last, is a project one can’t even imagine David Lynch doing.

SURVEILLANCE opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.