David Lynch has spawned a vast army of imitators, acolytes, and wannabes, but only one can claim a genetic pedigree. On the basis of 1993’s famously botched Boxing Helena and its extremely tardy follow-up Surveillance, Jennifer Lynch feels no need to establish her own voice or emerge from her famous father’s outsized shadow. The younger Lynch’s aesthetic is borrowed entirely from dear old dad, an American-gothic pop surrealism rife with black humor, kink, and cheap transgression.
Lost Highway’s Bill Pullman stars as a shadowy FBI agent who arrives alongside partner Julia Ormond at a small town police station run by Michael Ironside. The film tasks Pullman and Ormond with investigating a mysterious bloodbath whose victims include dirty cop French Stewart and vacationing mom Cheri Oteri. Ironside presides over a force that appears to be the product of a misguided outreach program to improve the lives of the mentally ill and criminally insane by handing them badges, guns, and positions in law enforcement. The cops fight boredom by shooting out the wheels of passing strangers’ cars then menacing their unfortunate passengers. But the dirty fuzz are harmless pussycats compared to the malevolent force behind the massacre.
Surveillance takes place largely in flashback, as Pullman and Ormond try to piece together the circumstances leading to the deaths. Lynch’s attempts to create a mood of abject terror get undercut, however, by her need to augment the sinister thriller atmospherics with Oteri lip-synching suggestively to a Violent Femmes song and corrupt-cop comedy that suggests what might happen if the zany funsters of Super Troopers were deeply unhinged instead of merely mischievous. The film teases audiences with the promise of a central revelation of unimaginable horror, but it’s barely capable of mild creepiness, let alone brain-shattering intensity. Surveillance maintains a pulpy energy—especially following a twist that allows some of the big names in the cast to overact with lip-smacking abandon—but remains unmistakably ersatz. Critics have long employed the phrase “Lynchian” to describe films derivative of Jennifer’s father. Surveillance suggests “Jennifer Lynchian” should be used for films that aspire to David’s moody, idiosyncratic genius and fall woefully short.