Under the Silver Lake, 2018.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Patrick Fischler, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez and Luke Baines.
A jobless LA dreamer finds purpose in investigating the disappearance of his neighbour after they spend a romantic day together.
The world of Under the Silver Lake is a weird, off-kilter take on Los Angeles. It’s a world in which everyone has vintage movie art all over the walls of their over-priced rental properties and in which commenting on a Kurt Cobain poster during sex is an entirely unremarkable event. This unusual, sun-dappled universe is home to a neo-noir shaggy dog tale – ripped from the mind of It Follows auteur David Robert Mitchell – and it’s certainly a journey down a very peculiar rabbit hole.
The Alice leading us through this particular Wonderland is Sam, played by a scruffily bearded Andrew Garfield. He spends his jobless days with binoculars in his hand and spying on his neighbours, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. When his gaze falls upon a glamorous newcomer to the apartment complex – Riley Keough’s mysterious Sarah – they bond over a Marilyn Monroe film and Sam falls quickly and hard in love. The next day, she’s gone and Sam makes it his mission to find her. Before the audience knows it, he’s following unusual symbols around the city that lead him to a recently deceased billionaire, while a strange guy dressed like a pirate pops up seemingly at random. Possible answers seem to be provided by the titular zine, created by a mad conspiracy theorist (Patrick Fischler).
But answers are something that Under the Silver Lake has little intention of providing. This is a ramshackle mystery thriller that only occasionally tosses its audience a fragment of its solution, like a jigsaw puzzle that holds back all of the most important pieces so nobody knows what the picture is supposed to be. It’s an ambitious and formally audacious tale that puts forward a tonne of ideas about LA, and modern society in general, while never bringing those ideas together into a coherent thesis. There’s clearly a vision at play, but it’s so opaque and piecemeal that the movie as a whole is an off-putting viewing experience.
The degree to which Mitchell’s film works at all is largely down to Garfield, whose central performance is elegantly balanced between awestruck, self-serious and a little goofy. He’s an avatar for every pretentious artist currently wandering the streets of LA, delivering ‘woe is me’ speeches about the unfairness of the world while obsessively following the breadcrumbs of the conspiracy theories with which he becomes fascinated. He’s equally a comment on toxic masculinity, doggedly pursuing a woman with whom he spent a single day as if he feels entitled to be a part of her life – like the pub regular who thinks he has a shot with a barmaid because she smiles pleasantly when she hands over his beer.
To an extent that there is a comparison point for Under the Silver Lake, it’s the raggedy storytelling of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice – another California noir. That movie’s narrative incoherence is rescued by lurid visual style and Joaquin Phoenix’s high-energy flamboyance, which is not something Garfield’s slacker character is able to bring to the table. The same dreamlike fantasia that gives this film its unique feel occasionally takes a sidestep into something a little tedious. While the Disasterpeace score for It Follows enhanced the tension of its disarmingly simple premise, his work this time is constantly reaching for a level of grandiose drama that seems out of step with the film. It’s as if the music is trying to comment on the faded dreams of the characters, but the effect is one of uncomfortable disconnect.
And that disconnect is often the story of the film, which lurches around in time and tone with little regard for structure. Garfield’s Sam is often likeable, but also has concerning visions of women barking like dogs and thinks nothing of referring to homeless people as “bullies” and “poltergeists” in a shocking outburst. One early scene, in which he viciously and uncomfortably beats the living daylights out of a kid who vandalised his car, seems to have no context and is never commented upon once the scene fades out. It’s as if the film itself is unsure who its characters are meant to be.
This is certainly true in the case of its female characters, who serve little purpose other than to play the role of mysteries to be solved or vapid Hollywood types. It’s likely that Mitchell does this deliberately to further his skewering of counter-culture and its relationship with masculinity – one shot explicitly draws parallels between a real woman and one of Sam’s fantasies – but the film itself seems to indulge in the same minimising of women that it’s criticising. It appears to want to have its sexist cake and eat it.
But it would be wrong to write off Under the Silver Lake completely. In a cinematic landscape that constantly delivers the same old, reliable material over and over again, there’s something to be said for something that’s entirely its own beast, even if that beast is a bit ugly and leads the audience down a dozen different garden paths – all of which culminate in dead ends.
One of the recurring images in this film is a parrot that regularly yells the same sequence of frustrating squawks. They sound like speech, but nobody can work out what it’s saying. It’s a fitting metaphor for Under the Silver Lake itself – something that makes a lot of noise, but never a lick of sense.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.