Jennifer Lynch may be most well-known as the daughter of David, but the 2008 thriller Surveillance is a testament to her formidable talents.
Jennifer Lynch recently celebrated 52 years on planet Earth, and we should all be thankful.
While her name may bring connotations to her legendary filmmaker father, David, she is one of the most idiosyncratic and underrated directors working today. While a majority of her output over the past decade has been in television (on series as varied as American Horror Story, Daredevil, and Hawaii Five-O, among many others), her style and sensibility are most well-encapsulated in 2008’s Surveillance.
Jennifer’s debut feature, 1993’s Boxing Helena, was mired in behind-the-scenes controversy and a subsequent critical firestorm (the film sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes). I wasn’t a fan myself but can understand how such a drubbing would put someone out of creative commission for an extended period.
Which is why her 15-years-later sophomore effort was a “comeback” in every sense of the word. With a fine character-actor cast led by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, and David in the executive producer’s chair, the film was as much a brutal riposte to the wounds incurred from Boxing Helena as it was an abstract retooling of violent, surreal, and even campy pulp conventions. While more earthbound than her father’s neo-Noir efforts, Jennifer co-opted his sense of brutality and dark humor, which led to an experience as unsettling as Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive…maybe more so.
As Velvet‘s Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) might accurately assess: “it’s a strange world.”
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Surveillance follows two FBI agents (Pullman and Ormond) called to investigate the aftermath of a traffic stop gone deadly wrong. Corralled at a lonely police station are the suspects and witnesses: crooked cop Jack Bennett (Kent Harper, who also co-wrote the script with Lynch); junkie Bobbi Prescott (Pell James); and little girl Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), who’s captivated by an iPad-like device. Using a flashback structure, the story comes together through a series of shifting, often-unreliable recollections.
The elder Lynch is frequently praised for his ability to construct surreal worlds out of the mundane trappings of everyday life (the dark underbelly of suburban America in Blue Velvet; the dreamlike alienation that infuses Inland Empire‘s depiction of Hollywood), and Jennifer is no different. Her films focus not only on characters who subvert pulp tropes but the settings in which they reside.
In Surveillance, the action occurs at a police station in the middle of nowhere. The convergence of characters in this setting mirrors the convergence of characters at the traffic stop (and its seemingly random, violent fallout). Lynch takes human interaction for the awkward social construct it is – each individual has a unique personality, many crossing the line from quirky, to pathological, to outright psychotic as the story progresses.
As a result of the limited location, Jennifer Lynch is able to prod at the characters and their secrets in clever ways. One person’s recollection is debunked by another’s, to the point where the film approaches a level of madness in its quest to unravel The Truth.