Under the Silver Lake, 2018.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Grace Van Patten and Jimmi Simpson.
Sam, a layabout, shaggy no-user, finds himself chained to the charm of a mysterious stranger after she goes missing. Through various puzzles and bizarre locations in Los Angeles, he stumbles on a much bigger conspiracy.
Often, the best films are the ones you didn’t expect. David Robert Mitchell already secured critics’ approval with his first feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover. But what came next knocked their socks off (but definitely kept their pants on). It Follows was an instant success, blending the percolating, pitiless moving dread of Carpenter with a tale of sexual deviance wired to the supernatural, thematically prescient but paralysing on a primal level.
It has been said that fame can cause one to become disillusioned with one’s craft, caught up in feeding their ego from the plaudits so much so that their continued work strains under the lack of intrepid creativity. Case and point, the undoing of Michael Cimino. From the Oscar-winning triumph of the gut-wrenching The Deer Hunter, he found himself at the mercy of the movie-going world upon the release of the hilariously catastrophic Heaven’s Gate, the closest visual representation of gluttony before the guy who ate himself to death in Se7en. Under the Silver Lake isn’t on the same disastrous plain of filmmaking existence – but in terms of tangible, cohesive storytelling, it’s about as limpid as a migraine.
We’re introduced to the sunburnt landscape of east L.A through a store window, a woman outside painting it with the message: “Beware the dog killer!” The camera pans to a scruffy-haired, stoner-bro get-up wearing Sam (Andrew Garfield) staring aimlessly á la Tom Hanks in the closing shots of Forrest Gump. He strolls home, but hears a crackling in the trees – a squirrel falls and gruesomely splats, lifting its head to give Same the pleasure of its final breath. It’s a WTF beginning, that’s for sure, made even more cluttered by the music of Disasterpeace, deliberately detached from any inkling of a mood attuned to the weirdness on show.
But the film finds direction in the bikini-clad bum of blonde bombshell Sarah (Riley Keough), as Sam stares out Rear Window-style at this Hitchcock femme fatale with a longing, determined male gaze. This is only stopped by the arrival of his (sort of) girlfriend; sparking a long shag spliced with innocuous conversations about Kurt Cobain and a missing billionaire. Upon climax, he looks out the window once again at Sarah. Eventually, he makes her acquaintance. Following some good ol’ marijuana, the pair connect and kiss. But he’s verbally hauled out, promised of another hangout the next day.
Morning comes – she’s disappeared. Her whole apartment is completely empty. Sam quizzes the landlord, completely bewildered at the fact she could just leave over night. The landlord says: “Maybe she just, didn’t like you?” But Sam, our much wiser protagonist, feels there’s something else going on. But a simple missing girl case turns into something much more convoluted – sorry, I mean wilder.
Fortunately for him, this journey through the dusty, homeless-filled streets (who, in a jarringly hateful bit of dialogue, Sam says he despises) features not one, but several glamorous women who rarely offer more depth than another object for the lead to ogle on his quest. There’s something to be said about this; the lack of irony leaves a bit of a sour taste, but there’s enough content to suggest this is self-aware enough to get away with the indulgence. Regardless, the way women are portrayed in Under the Silver Lake is very much of a time before today; how that’s interpreted varies from experience to experience.
The labyrinthian odyssey is downright Lynchian, a tapestry of absolutely batshit avenues and side characters, including, but not limited to: a recurring pirate who ferries girls away in crash zooms, a cereal box-map obsessed loony (played amusingly by Patrick Fischler); the “homeless king” and a system of underground tunnels; and an old man responsible for all the songs you cherish dearly. The sheer scope of Mitchell’s ambition is, at the very least, commendable, layering a dubiously-plotted mystery with surrealist flair and an incredibly distinct style.
But its serpentine structure creates both a schlocky (especially through the countless, ill-fitted fade transitions which practically evoked groans by the end) and nonsensical essence. For a start, it’s a 140 minute film that feels like 180. Sequences don’t connect to make an engaging mystery, only keeping your attention for the fact that you’ve been sitting there so long you have to see how it ends. People flow in and out without consequence, animated segments pop up out of nowhere (and exemplify exactly why they weren’t included in the theatrical cut of Watchmen) and there’s an eye-roll worthy advertising montage; another theme the film desperately wants to attach its cynicism too. One that does work is its mockery of rock hysteria, exploring the near-religious undertones of the (rather epic-sounding) Jesus and the Seven Brides.
Of course, Garfield is a fantastic actor, seen to be quite the charm as a web-crawler and a priest. He’s a deliberately unlikeable centre to the film, uneven and dim, unintelligent but deeply inquisitive, perhaps the most unspectacular sleuth of the millennium. He has humanity but also a real nasty side, fleshed out in idiosyncratic moments which occasionally hit; a late-night, heavy assault on vandalising kids kicks up some pretty dark laughs, but a ghastly burst of Winding Refn-esque gore later sticks out.
The film always looks good, brought lucidly to life through Mike Goulakis’ densely textured cinematography, both in the piercing shine of the day and the moonlit pools on rooftops. But again, the music by Disasterpeace is weird; the craft isn’t bad, in fact the score is actually very good – when separated from the visuals. As a whole piece though, there’s just something off about it. Under the Silver Lake can feel like an adaptation of a twisted, bad book, turned into a screenplay which has been left for a decade in the drawer and brought out for a passion project, now the filmmaker has the means. The result is something captivatingly strange, not always for the right reasons. There’s probably a crowd out there for this occult, twisty-turny, definitively baffling offering; I for one, have no desire to watch it again.
A sprawling, outré mirage that meanders through a world of the weird and barely wonderful at the expense of taste and clarity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★