Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It’s no great secret that filmmakers have a long-standing fascination with Los Angeles as a haven for grimy mysteries and conspiracy theories. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose arthouse horror sensation, It Follows, was itself a pastiche of older films (particularly 80s slashers), has taken that fascination to its apex with sophomore effort Under the Silver Lake. For here is a picture which burrows so far into retro-fetishism that it eventually becomes a kind of post-postmodern take on LA’s obsession with itself. Sadly, the film also fawns over its own construction in a way which starts out humorously before dovetailing into an ideological muddle. While this might play for 19-year-old stoners who read into the film’s odd detours with geeky obsession, the rest of us will simply prefer to rewatch Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive, or any number of B-movie noirs Mitchell is attempting to emulate.
Our Philip Marlowe-lite hero this time is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a 33-year-old unemployed drag who spends most of his time moping around his apartment, dodging his landlord due to overdue rent, getting drunk, and spying on young beautiful starlets who flood in and out of his purview. Soon after meeting a stunning blond with a fluffy dog (Riley Keough), he becomes obsessed with her, which is further exacerbated when she abruptly goes missing. What follows is a shaggy dog mystery where Sam attempts to decode the clues found in pop tunes, old vinyl records, 70’s issues of Playboy magazine, and lavish hipster parties in order to track down his ingenue. There’s a dead billionaire, squirrels falling from the sky, a dog killer on the loose, and even an old rich songwriter who mocks our protagonist by claiming pop culture is "all silly and meaningless", which is an apt description for the film itself. The whole thing plays like a Thomas Pynchon novel mixed with The Big Lebowski and the work of David Lynch as directed by Nicholas Ray. The only thing missing is a scene where Sam looks directly into the camera and chides the audience for not getting all the references.
This is not to say Mitchell doesn’t have his own aesthetic. His work with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is often effective; particularly in regards to capturing the golden wooziness of Silver Lake. However, despite Garfield’s best efforts to create a more earnest character as things slide into sub-Lynchian oddness, Sam is a prototypical slacker who not only punches children in the face in one scene, but also obsesses over young women in a way not dissimilar to our current state of “problematic men” hiding behind a nice guy persona. This makes the film’s trips down conspiracy theory rabbit holes all the more galling since we are supposed to root for Sam’s low rent sleuth as he chases down one MacGuffin after the next.
The notion of subliminal messages in pop-culture and that playing a vinyl record backwards, for instance, could produce a drug-addled epiphany is nothing new, and Mitchell’s failure to grasp the dopey humor in his conceit makes the film’s last half feel overly ponderous. While there are plenty of satirical gags (especially during the first act), one gets the sense that underneath the golden age references, Mitchell wants us to take all of this seriously. It’s one of those cases where a talented filmmaker is trying to concoct a cult classic rather than allowing such a descriptor to be grafted onto the work years later, possibly after midnight screenings under the influence. In that sense, it’s a weirdo lark made by someone who isn’t actually a weirdo, but merely playing at weirdness. Worst of all, it’s a film absolutely bereft of intellectual curiosity to even out all the self-regarding nonsense on display.
Under the Silver Lake does eventually lead somewhere, although its labyrinthine plot, which also features a crazed conspiracy theorist (played by Mulholland Drive’s Patrick Fischler, natch) and a lame climax involving a hippie underground cult, is purposefully anti-climatic. The point isn’t the destination, of course, but the hazy journey, and yet Mitchell flails to keep us interested in a wobbly narrative which drags on for 139 minutes. There may be a reading of the film involving the monopolization of “geek culture” (just look at those cash cow Marvel movies) and how it’s now a part of the greater entertainment industry, but Mitchell never investigates these ideas; only introduces them to scatter to the wind like a puff of bong smoke. The main drive here is artifice; how things look and sound (the score by Disasterpeace, for example, clearly evokes Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann).
This is all well and good, provided one desires a film without tension, stakes, or a melancholic streak underpinning all the nuttiness. It’s not enough to simply act and talk like a classic noir (or neo-noir), you must prove your existence beyond pastiche. This is a trick Brian De Palma mastered during the 1980s by taking obvious visual and story beats from past directors (mainly Hitchcock) and then reapplying them for that decade’s sleazy aesthetic. Mitchell doesn’t seem to have any grasp on the current culture—no 33-year-old hipster would ever dance to an R.E.M. song without irony—and his stabs at nostalgia feel just as contrived. Therefore, Under the Silver Lake is a lot like trying to decode hidden messages on the back of old cereal boxes; maddening and a waste of time.