'Surveillance': Here Be Monsters, By Kurt Loder

Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond in a wild murder derby.

"Surveillance" started out as a script about witches. Director Jennifer Lynch took a whack at it and made a movie about devils — the human kind. The picture is twisted and disturbing and funny, too. Lynch has pushed the material to the wall — she has a gift for violence and perversity, and she never pulls back.

A trail of brutal serial murders has wound its way across the country and now arrived in a remote, unnamed desert community. The movie begins with a recent atrocity, a man and woman slaughtered at their home. Then there's another bloodbath, out on a lonely highway, which leaves several people dead. We don't see this massacre — yet. The story really gets underway in its aftermath.

Three survivors have been brought to the local police headquarters: a wounded cop named Jack (script originator Kent Harper), a hopped-up young blonde named Bobbi (Pell James) and an eight-year-old girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins). Jack and Bobbi are liars, with much to lie about; only Stephanie has information that could be of help, but she's a kid, and nobody pays attention. Soon, to the resentment of the police chief (Michael Ironside) and his remaining force, the FBI takes an interest, and two agents, Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) and Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond), show up to lead the investigation.

The movie flips back and forth in time. In a scene set earlier, we observe that Jack and his partner, Jim (French Stewart), are corrupt, half-crazy dirtbags. To pass the dead time, they sit in their patrol car, parked near the desert highway, and shoot out the tires of selected passing vehicles, which they then approach and detain. The vicious good-cop/bad-cop psych-outs they inflict on these unlucky motorists are among the most alarming things in the movie. Which is saying something.

One of the cars we see the rogue lawmen intercept contains little Stephanie and her family. Then a second car is halted at the same spot, this one carrying Bobbi and her big-lunk boyfriend Johnny (Mac Miller), fresh from a drug rip-off. We still don't see what happens next, but soon.

Back at headquarters afterward, the three witnesses are being questioned separately. Stephanie keeps trying to tell anyone who'll listen that she saw something out on the highway earlier: a mysterious white van, a black-gloved hand, blood. Her story doesn't register. Then comes word that three more bodies have been discovered. Agent Anderson and two of the local cops set out for the scene. The picture ends in a bonfire of depravity, played for both shocks and laughs.

Lynch's first movie, the 1993 amputation love story "Boxing Helena," was savagely reviled, and for that and other reasons it's taken her 16 years to release a second one. "Surveillance" has some of the drifting unease we associate with the work of her father, David Lynch (who lent his name to the project in order to get it made, and also contributed music to the soundtrack). Some of the visual details (a demented face growling up on a monitor, a crushed bird in the road) have a touch of dad about them, and a long shot of the highway under a vast sky stacked with clouds recalls his 1999 film, "The Straight Story." But his daughter has her own ticklingly gruesome sensibility, and no reservations about deploying it.

She and Harper have cooked up some wicked lines, too. When Agent Anderson threatens the uncooperative Bobbi with a full cavity search, the younger woman says, "I haven't done a girl since art school." Says Anderson: "It's like riding a bike." The movie's fake-out conclusion is something else: It's like falling off a cliff.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Hurt Locker," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Surveillance."

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