The new film from the director of It Follows is a confusing and frustrating experience despite its hypnotic visuals and great score.
This film screened at Fantastic Fest 2018.
Those who complained about nothing happening in director David Robert Mitchell’s critically acclaimed It Follows will not be pleased with his follow-up feature film about a guy seeing clues to a grand mystery literally everywhere. While gripping and impeccably shot, Under the Silver Lake has an extra hour of runtime compared to It Follows, yet it’s as pretentious and devoid of meaning as Southland Tales.
Andrew Garfield has now mastered the art of playing a man on the verge of being evicted, after his fantastic performance in 99 Homes. Here he plays Sam, a disaster of a human being who, by his own admission, “does nothing.” One day he decides to talk to his dreamy blonde neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), and after a night of getting stoned while watching old movies, they make plans to see each other again the following day. But by the time Sam knocks on her door, she’s gone. No furniture in the apartment, no note, no warning, nothing. Since Sam just met her, he will do the logical thing and immediately decide to investigate her disappearance himself by going deep into a rabbit hole of obsession and paranoia, with only a mysterious symbol left on the wall of Sarah’s apartment as a clue.
Will the symbol lead to a serial dog killer stalking the neighborhood? A famous entertainment business billionaire who’s also gone missing? Or a grand conspiracy involving trippy parties, underground tunnels, nuclear bunkers, urban legends come true, and a seemingly endless series of fancy L.A. soirees full of gorgeous women? All of them, really – but mostly confusion. David Robert Mitchell wants the viewer to know that there are no mysteries left in the world, and to show how far people are willing to go to put some intrigue back into their lives while living in an overstimulated world devoid of privacy or boundaries. But Mitchell takes these clearly misguided conspiracy theories seriously, making the film unsure of what it is or what tone to have. There will be tons of Reddit threads after the Under the Silver Lake comes out trying to decipher all the hidden messages and clues, but based on the actual film, there probably isn’t a point to any of that.
The biggest problem with Under the Silver Lake is Sam himself. It is one thing to have your protagonist be a flawed, neurotic loser with no redeeming qualities that you are not supposed to root for, but to legitimize his crazy conspiracy theorist way of thinking and make it look like he’s smart and actually onto something is another thing entirely. Garfield tries his best to bring puppy-eyed charm to his performance, which keeps the audience from getting completely turned off, even if he’s infuriating and loathsome. Still, Sam is not the typical geeky kid obsessed with his hot neighbor; he’s the guy who spends all day drinking, smoking, spying on a topless neighbor, and seeing clues to a mystery that may be real or not – everything but try to pay his rent. He’s the kind of guy who thinks of himself as Humphrey Bogart, but is not even Lebowski. Oh, and he also confesses to hating the homeless and punches every tooth out of a group of vandalizing kids’ mouths.
Mitchell does deserve some credit in his elaborate homage to classic Hollywood. Under the Silver Lake has a very distinct Hitchcockian vibe, with sharp camera movements and an enthralling Golden Age of Hollywood-inspired score by Disasterpeace, who also scored It Follows. The classic orchestral music helps create an eerie atmosphere and increase the tension, even at the most mundane moments. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis shoots the film with a mix of Hitchcockian angles, the 360 camera pans (which he also used in Mitchell’s previous film), and the alluring surrealism of Inherent Vice.
This mix of Film Noir elements, the strangeness of David Lynch, and a stoner film doesn’t always work, as Mitchell doesn’t know whether to fully embrace his homage to classic Hollywood and its tropes – particularly around his underdeveloped female characters – or to take a more modern approach. As we go further down the rabbit hole, and the weirdness intensifies, the film can’t find many compelling reasons for the new clues or questions. It doesn’t seem like Mitchell knows whether he wants the audience to just accept the weirdness at face value, or deconstruct it to find a deeper meaning.