Surveillance (2008)

JUNE 17, 2009


Here we go, another review where I can’t really say anything without “spoiling” the movie. The best way to see Surveillance is to know nothing about it, not even the basic plot, so if you are in that camp still, please stop reading, go see the movie, and then come back to read the review. If you already know the plot and have seen the trailer, then all I’m really going to spoil is something that is so obvious right from the start, I’m not even sure if its supposed to be a twist but rather part of the plot that wasn’t spelled out until absolutely necessary.

So you’ve been warned either way....

The thing is, I liked the movie. All of the actors are great (particularly the three “witnesses”, played by Pell James, Kent Harper (who also co-wrote), and Ryan Simpkins), and I always love these “putting the pieces together” setups, where a crime has already occurred and the movie is mainly about people saying what happened. Unfortunately, the movie seems built around a twist that is not only the least surprising “reveal” in film history, but also keeps the film sort of inert until it can get to that point, which kept me from loving it.

So if you’re reading still, you know the plot: FBI agents Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond are called to investigate a string of murders in a sleepy Southwestern town, and find out that not everything is what it seems... (the “...” is part of the plot description). But anyone who’s ever seen a film before will probably figure out within minutes that Pullman and Ormond ARE the killers, and they are there mainly to see if the witnesses know anything that could jeopardize their identities. And because it’s so easy to spot, you will probably be hoping that the director just wants you to THINK you’re so smart and figure it out, only to reverse our jaded film viewer expectations with a double twist (or, like Spiral, the “no twist” twist). That or Pullman/Ormond will reveal themselves soon and get some action up in this mofo.

Sadly, neither is the case. At around the 75 minute mark, Pullman finally snaps, but there’s no real suspense to what happens next, as they are all tied up while he has a gun in his hand. Plus our “heroes” include a junkie and a crooked cop, so it’s not like we’re really rooting for them either.

Another thing that irked me was that it was compared to Rashomon by the filmmakers and even some other members of the press. Uh, no. Rashomon is great because it manipulates the way a story is told, by literally showing us something from multiple (varying) points of view. Here, the witnesses never contradict the others’ stories - everything we see on screen really happened. The “manipulation” angle stems from the fact that the crooked cop (Harper) and the junkie (James) lie about what they are doing to their interviewers (i.e. the junkie says she was on a job interview, but she was really buying drugs), so it’s hardly a compelling device either from a technical or storytelling point of view. A junkie will lie? Well I never!

To be fair, her “alibi” allows for the film’s best dialogue exchange:

Junkie: Anyway, I didn’t get the job...
Asshole cop: Oh, they didn’t hire YOU on the spot?
Junkie: No, I wasn’t applying to be a cop.

Hahaha, love it. Plus Ms. James is hot as hell, so it’s even better. But still, it would have been greatly beneficial for some actual Rashomon-style storytelling, with the three witnesses telling different accounts of the crime, which would probably distract the audience away from the obvious fact that the killers were the ones asking the questions (and the witnesses were merely lying to cover their ass for the crimes they DID commit). Also, it would have allowed for them to be viable suspects, as there seems to be some attempt to make this a whodunit since the killers wear (pretty creepy) masks made from paper-mache, but doesn’t really give us any other options for their identity.

And this is minor, but the term “surveillance” refers to someone who doesn’t know they are being watched, but that doesn’t apply here. The witnesses are talking directly to the video cameras that are recording the questioning, and Pullman (“directing” from a separate room) often talks directly to the witnesses via intercom. Then again, the movie was apparently originally about witches, so who the fuck knows how the title originated.

However, it’s still a pretty entertaining thriller. It’s nice and short, and the first 30 minutes, when you don’t really know what’s going on, are terrific. The actual murders are Final Destination-y in their level of gore and execution, so that’s good. Also, it’s surprisingly funny. The two crooked cops (Harper and French Stewart - odd choice, kind of works) are a riot, and Pullman gets in some funny moments as well. I also loved the wiseass brother of Simpkins' character, who’s sort of like Rusty Griswold (his family is on a vacation) teleported into a thriller.

Also, I noticed something odd: no one in the movie wears a seatbelt. Even Jack Bauer buckles up most of the time, but none of these folks seem to find the time to drive safely (that nearly every event in the film is caused by Harper and Stewart shooting out traveler’s tires to pass the time makes this even more distracting). I was hoping it would pay off, with someone going through a windshield, but no dice.

I never saw Jennifer Lynch’s other film (Boxing Helena), and since it stars Julian Sands, I have no desire to. Going by this, I think I can safely say that she’s far more accessible than her father, but maybe too much so. There are some risqué moments in the film (Ormond and Pullman’s borderline three-way with a victim is pretty goddamn erotic/creepy), and the ending is rather dark, but it still feels like she’s pulling her punches a bit, and didn’t allow the film to get as twisty or taboo as it could have been... Look, what I’m saying is... they should have killed the little girl too.

However, her next movie (Hisss) is about a killer snake woman, so I’m there.

Nothing about this film wowed me, but I enjoyed it all the same. And I guess it’s better to aim average and succeed than to aim high and fail, so in that respect, Surveillance works. I’ll take it over her dad’s last movie (Inland Empire) any day of the week, that’s for sure.

What say you?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. check out "bane" and "dead girl." two surprisingly effective low budget indie horror flicks.

  2. The two cops were very funny! I particularly enjoyed the "lets make a grass angel" gag.

  3. Man, I turned this off as soon as I figured out that Pullman and Ormond were the killers, about 10 minutes in. I guess I wasn't as optimistic about the movie trying to switch things up on us. I just don't see where the suspense is coming from when you know damn well exactly what's going on from the beginning. Very disappointing.


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