Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace
Running time: 139 minutes
A neo-noir mystery doused heavily in colourful postmodernism, David Robert Mitchell’s latest film is a deliriously vibrant slog. Clocking in at just shy of the 140-minute mark, Under the Silver Lake covers some serious ground without ever truly delving beneath the surface of its own story. By the end, viewers might be left reeling how a film can simultaneously go every which way — and back again — and also seemingly nowhere.
The follow-up to Mitchell’s impressively chilling existential horror It Follows, Under the Silver Lake follows Garfield’s Sam, a jobless loafer more concerned with spying on his female neighbours than he is with paying off his outstanding rent. Sarah (Keough), a girl Sam becomes infatuated almost instantly, goes missing and, in a bid to find her, he must navigate a sickly-sweet, hyperbolised version of Los Angeles — one glossed thick in pop culture and rich Hollywood heritage but primed with a dark, unspoken underbelly. He knows next to nothing about her yet quickly becomes convinced her disappearance is part of something much, much bigger. Conspiracy hangs heavy in the air, but Sarah’s isn’t the only mystery to be unravelled here: a billionaire daredevil has also vanished, and someone keeps mercilessly murdering dogs.
In an era of big-budget franchises and spandex-obsessed cinematic universes, the fact that a film like Under the Silver Lake — one that takes pride in wholeheartedly not playing by the rules — offers something more than a little off-kilter shouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. That said, while it might be ambitious in practice, it is far less so in execution. There’s an undeniable sense of originality to it, coupled with Lynchian oddness and beats of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice vigorously pulsating away as Sam’s unhinged obsession quickly leaves him connecting the dots between a paranoid zine author, actors-turned-escorts, a gothic rock band and an old Nintendo gamer’s magazine. But the many over and underlapping rabbit holes, as well as a wildly laissez-faire approach to narrative tangents, renders the finished product a rather beautiful mess.
Garfield is compelling enough as a man with little direction in life searching for the hidden meanings he believes are buried everywhere. From quickly falling in love to savagely beating a couple of kids for vandalising his car to nonchalant, less-than-commendable remarks about the homeless, Garfield’s Sam is a peculiar concoction of likeable and unnerving.
Elsewhere, the film’s treatment of its female characters sits rather uncomfortably, particularly in the current social climate. Mitchell deliberately paints them in broad, sexualised strokes to accentuate his critique of the ‘male gaze’, but Under the Silver Lake never relinquishes an unnerving sense that it’s indulging in the very thing it is looking to renounce. This is a film that never quite appears to be sure of what both it, or its characters, wish to be.
The narrative too lacks a dynamic sense of purpose, throwing about a barrage of intriguing ideas about LA, sex, violence and modern society as a whole, but doing so without any true coherence or conviction. There’s a captivating, cutting tale in there somewhere, but just where to begin the search for it is really anybody’s guess.
The strength of Under the Silver Lake, however, lies in the collaborative efforts of Mitchell, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and musician Disasterpeace. Together, the trio deliver a commendable pallet of equally gorgeous and unsettling audio-visuals that keep the film from drowning in the insufferable waters of its own inconclusion. Convoluted it all may be, but rarely has convolution looked this good.
Engrossing and infuriating, Under the Silver Lake has plenty of volume with very little depth. It promises much, but this is a film where the questions are plentiful and the answers scarce.