Jennifer Lynch — like Sofia Coppola, on occasion — has been tarred with the unfounded claim that her films get made only because of who her father is. David Lynch serves as executive producer of Surveillance, Jennifer's first film since the near-stoning she received after her 1993 debut feature, the amputee fantasia Boxing Helena, and traces of his oeuvre (Lost Highway's Bill Pullman, FBI agents, corrosive small towns) surface in his daughter's latest. But Dad's influence ends there: Surveillance is the work of a director who has made significant strides in both storytelling (Lynch shares a writer's credit with Kent Harper, who also acts in the film) and control of the medium, deftly interweaving a grisly thriller, a sicko Rashômon, a switcheroo, a psychotic love story, an imaginative paean to children, and an inspired resurrection of Julia Ormond.
Set in an unnamed flatlands town (with Saskatchewan filling in for a heartland state), Surveillance's prologue begins in smeary slo-mo, with gruesomely masked killers bludgeoning a man and then pursuing the screaming woman who manages to escape. FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson (Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Pullman) arrive at a Podunk police station to investigate a mass slaughter on the highway from the day before, likely connected to the opening's blood and gore. Three witnesses — crazy-fuck cop Jack (Harper), tooted-up Bobbi (Pell James), and stoic eight-year-old Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins) — recount their version of the roadside atrocities while videotaped, with Agent Hallaway watching the monitors. As each teller's supersaturated flashback unfolds — the recapitulations distorting events to cover up a particular depravity — Lynch heightens the sense of dread with shots of traveling on endless, desolate highways.
And then Surveillance goes batshit. Beneath the film's surface appeal as a twisty, morbidly funny freakout lies a weightier theme on the resilience of children. The most reliable of Surveillance's traumatized witnesses — indeed, the wisest character — is blonde moppet Stephanie, composed beyond her years but never becoming, as frequently happens with pint-size protagonists, precocious or unbearably cute. Lynch has said in interviews that, during the 15-year gap between Boxing Helena and Surveillance (which premiered at Cannes in 2008), she got sober, recovered from three spinal surgeries, and raised a daughter, now 13, as a single parent. Whatever her attachment to her own child may be, Lynch displays a deep empathy for Stephanie, who, steadfastly refusing to be undone by the horror she experiences, suggests a kinship with Louie Pollit, the implacable adolescent heroine of Christina Stead's 1940 novel of domestic terrors, The Man Who Loved Children. As opposed to her father's films, in which anyone younger than the high schoolers of Twin Peaks seems not to exist, Surveillance creates a complex, crayon-wielding underage sleuth, whose powers of observation are keener than those of the adults three times her size.
Towering above Stephanie is Ormond's Agent Anderson, who interrogates the tyke with a creepy, saccharine overidentification: “I was once a sad little girl myself,” the femme fed coos with a hand squeeze. But the impeccably put-together G-woman is also capable of butch menace, threatening druggie Bobbi with a cavity search in a silly pseudosapphic exchange that foretells nuttier same-sexing. Ormond — who once graced a 1995 cover of Vanity Fair, which dubbed hers the “face of the future” (essentially killing her career) — throws herself into the role with the abandon of a performer who has nothing left to lose; she's absolutely terrific in an over-the-top performance that demands boss-lady steeliness, inner-child woundedness (“It's bringing up a lot of stuff,” she huffs to Hallaway of her Q&A with Stephanie), and id-explosive perversion. As for her director's re-emergence, it looks like it won't be another decade and a half in between projects; Lynch's third film, Hisss, about a lethal snakewoman, is apparently in postproduction. While her father may have abandoned filmmaking to extol Transcendental Meditation, Jennifer appears committed to continuing the noble tradition of blowing — not calming — our minds.