Surveillance may involve three separate interviews about the same event, but Rashomon it most certainly is not. Ascertaining the truth through multiple narratives is certainly central to Jennifer Lynch's long-delayed follow-up to 1993's polarizing Boxing Helena. The three accounts provided, however, aren't juxtaposed or in real conflict; rather, they coalesce to form a tale about the fateful affairs that led FBI agents Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Hallaway (Bill Pullman) to a middle-of-nowhere New Mexico police station to investigate a horrific crime. That offense is initially shrouded in mystery, with details elucidated slowly through the agents' briefing and subsequent interviews – conducted simultaneously by Anderson and local cops, and monitored via closed-circuit video feeds by Hallaway – of the surviving eyewitnesses: traumatized 12-year-old Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), defiant junkie Bobbie (Pell James) and combative officer Bennet (Kent Harper). It's the set-up for a rather routine procedural. Yet in a development that will stun no one who's seen Boxing Helena or any of her father's films, Lynch isn't interested in straightforward genre mundanity, and even during Hallaway's first appearance – his face twitchy, his speech halting, his eyes nervous and his comportment slightly askew – there's an underlying sense that this ordinary reality is somehow off-kilter, corrupted. Far too frequently a milquetoast, inauthentic screen presence, Pullman is alive and on-edge in Surveillance, suggesting a screwy interior through mannered gestures and tightly wound, inscrutable expressions. He's an apparent loose cannon barely keeping himself in check, though it's near impossible during the film's first-third to get a bead on which direction he's actually coming from. His indecipherable performance generates underlying tension for a scenario that's already on pins and needles, as Anderson and Hallaway – who share a cozy personal rapport – are greeted with barely veiled contempt by Captain Billings (Michael Ironside) and his two men. If federal-local conflict seems poised to erupt, however, it soon takes a back seat to the more pressing requirement of questioning witnesses. While Stephanie is introverted, having been scarred by an unknown tragedy, the other two detainees greet their FBI interrogators with defiant disdain, Bobbi exuding a go-to-hell attitude at least partly fueled by regular bathroom snorts of blow, and Bennet – his face bloody, and his wounded hand bandaged – so aggressively uncooperative that he quickly throws suspicion on himself.
As the crime in question is slowly revealed via testimonials – the factual flashbacks we witness at odds with the phony, self-serving narratives told by Bobbi and Bennet – Lynch creates ominous unease through compositions that highlight the desolation of the New Mexico landscape, the lone two-lane highway that cuts through the arid land surrounded by imposing sky and fields and pockmarked by rotting road kill. Hell is emptiness, both in terms of environment and individuals, and Lynch slowly ekes out portraits defined by an absence of empathy. Bobbi, along with her boyfriend, began that fateful day robbing a drug dealer who had suddenly OD'd in her presence, and upon almost crashing into Stephanie's family station wagon, which was halted by a flat tire, couldn't resist cheap, ugly mockery of the nuclear clan. Her callousness, however, pales in comparison to that of Bennet, who – despite claiming to Anderson and Hallaway that he was merely aiding a motorist with a flat tire – is soon shown to be a power-drunk sadist with a fondness, along with his partner Conrad (French Stewart, in a nasty-funny role), for shooting out speeding motorists' tires and then viciously threatening them with both physical and sexual assault.
A prolonged sequence in which Bennet and Conrad, enacting demented dual good-cop, bad-cop routines, accost both Bobbi and Stephanie's mom (Cheri Oteri, barely credible in a dramatic turn) exudes a bit of the hillbilly meanness that typified The Devil's Rejects' bravura motel-room segment. From this point forward, Surveillance slowly peels back its superficial layers of normalcy to expose something far more fetid underneath, and though its climactic surprise doesn't necessarily stun – ultimately, there's only one real way the proceedings can, and thus do, head – the means by which Lynch revels in perversity is bracing. With slow-burn momentum that's occasionally marred by stretches of torpor, the film wends its way into sick-joke territory, indulging in degenerate humor and horror that unsettles not through gore but a commingling of lust and violence – epitomized by a case of erotic asphyxiation in which the victim's last breath is sucked out via a deep mouth kiss – that jolts the action with sexualized menace. Positing a world in which love, if it exists at all, is often intrinsically wedded to malicious amorality, Lynch's return-from-hiatus proves a nasty little slice of backwater depravity.