Friday, October 11, 2013
Cult-Movie Review: Surveillance (2009)
Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, directs Surveillance (2009), an unnerving and unpredictable thriller that explores the way our assumptions about people dictate our actions, whether or not those assumptions happen to be true.
Perhaps more to the point, Lynch’s film revises and revamps the central scenario of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) for the twenty-first century.
Rashomon, as you may recall, involves a terrible crime -- the murder of a samurai -- and four differing “witness” accounts of the events surrounding that moral and legal transgression. Those remembering the crime included a bandit, a wife, a samurai (whose viewpoint was recounted from beyond the grave by a medium…) and a woodcutter.
In the end, however, no definitive account of the crime could be produced, thereby suggesting that there is no such thing as objective truth. Rather, there are multiple, subjective truths, and all of them are based, in some sense, upon personal “self-interest” according to Kurosawa.
Similarly, Surveillance involves a set of brutal, inexplicable murders on the open Nebraska highway, and four different accounts of the events surrounding it. The percipients in this case are a junkie, a cop, and a terrified little girl.
And in one way or another, all these witnesses appear to be unreliable narrators.
From its very first moments, something about reality seems “wrong” in Surveillance, like everyone is just a little bit off, or twitchy about some un-excavated fact or detail. As the film’s narrative unfolds, that feeling of tension about the characters and their behavior escalates and the suspense grows palpable. The film divided audiences, and I can certainly see why.
But there’s certainly a method to the madness here, and I was surprised (but happily so) to see that Surveillance --at least in large part -- fits in with the movie oeuvre of Lynch’s famous father. Here, director Lynch spends a much time and expends tremendous creative energy charting the gulf between dishonest surface and roiling underneath. She does so with a quirky and daring visual style and a final twist that re-affirms and punctuates the idea of assumptions proven dramatically wrong.
“I think that’s the most romantic thing in the whole world.”
In Surveillance, F.B.I. agents Anderson (Ormond) and Hallaway (Pullman) arrive at a small police station in Nebraska to question three witnesses to a horrible highway massacre. The witnesses are a junkie named Bobbi (Pell James), Officer Bennett (Kent Harper), who is still in mourning over the death of his partner, Conrad (French Stewart), and finally, a little girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), who saw her entire family butchered.
Anderson and Hallaway attempt to suss out how much each witness knows about the crime, but Bennett and Bobbi leave out key details.
Bennett, in particular, doesn’t reveal that he and his partner spent the day harassing travelers on the highway, first shooting out their tires and then stopping them for some minor legal infraction, so they could play good-cop/bad-cop with them.
Bobbi, meanwhile, seeks to minimize all aspects of the story relating to the death of her drug dealer that very morning, and her drug addiction.
Stephanie, meanwhile, begins to sense a deeper truth about the crime.
As tempers grow heated, the lies begin to melt away, and the truth about the murders on the highway bubbles to the surface…
“The things we do to each other…”
If Rashomon suggested that self-interest colors perception, Surveillance takes the notion a giant step further. Here, the characters -- the cop and the junkie, specifically -- knowingly and repeatedly lie to the two F.B.I. agents investigating the case. We see them lie and hear them lie, while flashbacks reveal for us the actual, horrendous truth of what occurred.
In the case of the little girl, Stephanie, the matter is a bit more complicated. A child’s viewpoint of the world is very different from an adult’s, and so the girl seems unreliable, but not necessarily because she lies. Instead, Stephanie simply talks in a different vocabulary, and with a different set of references. At the end of the film, she also makes a choice regarding silence and truth, one which is smart given the circumstances.
Attempting to ferret out the truth at the local police station -- and using person-to-person interviewing techniques as well as constant surveillance to do so -- are the two F.B.I agents I mentioned above, played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond. Uniquely, these characters also possess crucial information they have chosen not to share with the witnesses, and this facet of the film also plays directly into Surveillance’s overriding leitmotif regarding assumptions and truth.
Early in Surveillance we see some graffiti written on a bathroom wall. It reads: “You can’t argue with nature.”
That scrawled message might just provide the key to unlocking the mysteries of the film. Specifically, it is our nature as human beings to assign values upon people based on how they present themselves, or how more simply, how they look. We look at an F.B.I. agent, a police officer, a junkie, and a little girl, and we start making assumptions about them, and their behavior.
As Surveillance quickly establishes, however, that aspect of our “nature” -- that instant classification of people based on assumptions -- can be downright dangerous.
The police in the film, for instance, are incredibly corrupt. Bennett and his partner Conrad are sadists who brutalize and abuse innocent drivers. There’s an incredibly discomforting scene late in the film wherein one of the officers begins to make amorous advances towards Stephanie’s mother (played by Cheri Oteri), and Lynch doesn’t cut away or blink. We wonder how far the moment is going to go, and how much the family is going to have to endure.
Police officers are not supposed to take liberties like that with the people they are sworn to protect and defend, and yet we watch in horror, as the partners, Bennett and Conrad, act by a new and different set of rules. It’s the two of them against the rest of us.
Even when the masked killers arrive on the scene, this principle of behavior endures.
Similarly, our first instinct when watching and listening to Bobbi is to write her off as an unreliable witness. She witnessed the death of a drug dealer and doesn’t report it. She’s a drug addict herself, and so we make the assumption that she has something to hide, or is simply undependable.
Then, there’s the little girl, Stephanie, who doesn’t possess the adult vocabulary that the others do, but who is actually the one character in the entire film that capably sizes up the situation, and understands what is happening. Perhaps she has not yet learned through years of practice to rely on assumptions about people, and to trust instead her feelings…and her eyes, instead. She learns a hard lesson in the film about discerning the truth, but keeping her mouth shut.
Lastly, there are the F.B.I. officers, and Surveillance finally ascends to its either “love it or hate it” zenith by revealing how everyone’s assumptions about this duo plays into the narrative. Here, Lynch puts an exclamation point on the theme about human nature and assumptions by deliberately landing the audience in the same predicament as many of the characters. We assume one truth right from the film’s opening when the objective truth is something else entirely.
Above, I described Surveillance as a step into the twenty-first century regarding its commentary on truth, and in large part that’s because the film suggests that in today’s world, appearances can be deceiving…and often intentionally so.
Just one example: remember back during the Bush Administration, circa 2004 – 2006, when the government pushed its Medicare D expansion program with a fake news journalist named “Karen Ryan” reporting?
This individual appeared to be a legitimate, independent reporter, but she was actually a PR flak working for the government.
Yet Karen Ryan’s “news report” about the wonderful benefits of the government program ran as news on more than 50 local stations in the United States. There are no doubt other examples of this sort of deceit from the other end of the political spectrum, but this one sticks in the memory and arose in the context almost immediately preceding the creation of Surveillance. On the surface was a trustworthy journalist fronting an important news report; on the roiling underneath a secret agenda was being pushed.
How were we to judge – or even know -- the difference?
Surveillance gets at this truth about the world; that the old lines we once considered sacrosanct are blurring and growing ever more indistinct. The obvious “visuals” -- a police uniform or an F.B.I. badge -- are now just that, visuals or symbols. But they don’t necessarily convey the “substance” of a person’s character in the way we might hope they would. They no longer signify what they appear to signify, and so society is breaking down.
I suppose that leitmotif makes Surveillance a cynical entertainment, especially given the last few, shocking moments. But then again, sometimes the truth ain’t pretty, right?
If so, then Surveillance isn’t just a well-visualized, formalist thriller. It’s a horror movie.