Monday, July 20, 2009
If you’ve been to the Iguana before, you’ll probably know that I’m a huge David Lynch geek. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena came around in 1993, I was on tenterhooks to see it, wondering how much of the bizarre could be passed on through the generations.
But, whether it was because I expected too much since she was Lynch’s daughter, or whether the production itself took an early (and unrecoverable) bad step in the whole Kim Basinger casting brouhaha, I came away from the film a sad, disappointed man.
The younger Lynch then fell off the cinematic radar till last year, when her Surveillance began to stir up much praise, winning the top prize at Sitges. (It also won the Best Director and Best Actress awards at the NYC Horror Film Festival; Lynch being the first female director to take the prize in the festival’s history, and Ryan Simpkins, the first child to win Best Actress.)
And now that I’ve seen it, I’m a very happy man, extremely glad that after all these years, my disillusionment with Boxing Helena has finally been washed away by this involving thriller.
The film centres on a violent incident along a stretch of highway in the Santa Fe desert and the three witnesses to it. An a$hole cop (Surveillance co-writer Kent Harper), a junkie (Zodiac’s Pell James), and a child (Simpkins, also seen in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road) are asked to recount the incident (and their respective journeys leading up to that point), by the FBI agents (Julia Ormond; and Bill Pullman, who’d of course previously worked with David Lynch on the stunning Lost Highway) who’ve arrived to investigate the crime.
The fractured storytelling (three points-of-view; discrepancies between what is being said and what actually took place) affords much of what makes Surveillance so involving in its early section, with the witnesses’ convergence during the incident in question a bloody, violent, and unrelenting set piece.
Then we’re privy to what comes next…
There is much here that is Lynchian, particularly the characters and characterizations that are slightly off-centre, and it’s actually an element of the proceedings that Lynch uses to good effect, acting as partial camouflage for the twists the narrative takes during its course.
To everyone’s credit, the clues are there, and even if you suspect the nature of the shoe you’re just waiting to drop, the reveal is still brutally effective, the finale suitably bleak.
Though this is nominally a thriller, as with most of her father’s work, Lynch’s Surveillance does what the best horror movies should do, unsettle, disturb its audience.
Central to that aspect of Surveillance are the performances of Harper and French Stewart (who plays Officer Jim Conrad), who are the worst sort of cop you’d ever have the misfortune of meeting.
It’s the fact that most of the cops we see in the film range from flaming a$holes to annoying incompetents, that the departmental rivalry between the local law enforcement and the FBI becomes a wryly amusing sight.
The third act reveal then makes it positively perverse.
Lynch, like her father, knows a good musical moment, and gives The Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” a neat spin during the proceedings. (Aside from executive producing, Daddy Lynch also provides the creepy-a$ “Speed Roadster,” portions of which are heard in the film’s main body, then heard in its entirety during the end credit crawl.)
She also knows how to visually captivate, and she’s ably assisted in this respect by DP Peter Wunstorf and editor Daryl K. Davis.
All in all, this is a stunning return for Lynch, and the fact that she chose her next project to be the Bollywood production Hisss (about a nāginī—a female nāga, or snakewoman), makes me grin even wider.
Whatever flaws I may have perceived in Boxing Helena, Surveillance is a cold, calculated diamond, proving quite decisively that the younger Lynch is a capable and rather gifted storyteller.
Hopefully, she has more bizarre cinematic jewels up her sleeve.
Parting shot: A double feature of Surveillance and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be a blast, if only to showcase two very different sides of Ormond.
(Surveillance OS courtesy of impawards.com [design by Jeremy Saunders]; images courtesy of latimes.com & shocktillyoudrop.com.)