A film review by Craig J. Koban May 6, 2019

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE jjj

2019, R, 139 mins.

 

Andrew Garfield as Sam  /  Riley Keough as Sarah  /  Topher Grace as Man at Bar  /  Jimmi Simpson as Allen  /  Riki Lindhome as The Actress  /  Zosia Mamet as Troy

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell

 

 

 

 

 

After the twisted, genre busting greatness of writer/director David Robert Mitchell's 2014 art house horror thriller IT FOLLOWS - which I proudly placed on my list for the Ten Best Films of that year - I was willing to jump down any rabbit hole he placed in front of me moving forward.  With its joyously and nostalgically synthesized music score, slick direction, and crafty and sly dissection of teen slasher film troupes, IT FOLLOWS ushered Mitchell in as a bono fide talent.   This builds me towards his latest effort, a neo-noir L.A. mystery thriller that could not be anymore different from what Mitchell has offered up before, which is a most welcome thing (I generally love it when intrepid directors do something hugely ambitious and decidedly different so early in their careers).  

Unfortunately, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE had a damning release history, originally coming out during the 2018 Cannes Film Festival to mixed critical and audience reaction, which later led to the film having its official U.S. release date pushed back not once, not twice, but three times in a small handful of cinemas last week (it then got very unceremoniously dumped on VOD shortly thereafter).  After seeing the final product I can certainly understand the Herculean task the studio had in marketing this frankly hard to decipher experimental film.  UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is both hypnotically alluring as well as completely befuddling and confusing to endure, and at a audience patience testing two and a half hours Mitchell may have self-indulgently bitten off a bit more than he could chew here.  But, his film is so delectably and engagingly offbeat and contains impressive production design and crisp direction.  That, and it features a totally committed performance by Andrew Garfield that helps carry the film's heavy load. 

 

 

Mitchell's labyrinthine and, frankly, weird AF story is a challenging one to relay here, but I'll try to encapsulate it in broad strokes.  Garfield plays arguably one of his most dislikeable and grungy characters in the City and Angels residing Sam, a down on his luck and unemployed slacker that's on the cusp of being evicted from his apartment due to non-payment of several months worth of rent.  Most of his days involve heavy boozing, smoking, having hook up sex with women he has no strong emotional ties to, and, most importantly, spying on his neighbors.  One day his binoculars catch the visage of a beautiful blonde named Sarah (Riley Keough), who has the same sort of ethereal and seductive vibe of a Hitchcockian femme fatale.  The opening scenes between Garfield and Keough have a playful sense of unpredictability, which helps build the storytelling momentum. 

After one night of hanging out with a promise by her that they'll meet up again, Sarah completely disappears, much to the disappointment and worry of Sam, who's convinced that something very rotten is afoul.  Growing more obsessive by the minute about the potential and conspiratorial mystery surrounding this woman vanishing so abruptly, Sam takes it upon himself to play amateur sleuth and follows a series of seemingly unrelated clues through the fringe underbelly of L.A. that takes him to some very colorfully strange places and people.  His after hours quest delves into religious fanatics, numerology, and a wacky assortment of outlandish personas (like - checks notes - a guy wearing a Burger King crown that serves as a mystical guide, a rock bank with a Jesus angle, a man dressed as a pirate, a naked woman wearing an owl mask, a topless woman with a talking parrot, and a malicious serial killer of dogs).  The movie also includes a suicidal squirrel, a very aggressive minded skunk, and sex cults...but not in that specific order of appearance. 

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is peculiar almost in the same manner of a David Lynch movie, and Mitchell deserves some props for not simply going back to the genre well and into his own filmmaking Tickle Trunk to rehash his past successes with IT FOLLOWS.  This is just his third feature and he's daring himself to go down some hugely unconventional creative alleys, which allows for UNDER THE SILVER LAKE to be, as mentioned, equal parts baffling and intoxicating.  It's a film that's extremely hard to categorize and decode, but part of its odd charm is its very impenetrability.  There's also this unnerving sense - despite the film's wacky vibe -  that something is indeed very, very wrong with not only Sam's community, but with the rapid disappearance of Sarah.  It's safe to say that the longer UNDER THE SILVER LAKE progresses the more it tends to awkwardly stumble along from one unusual and incongruent story tangent to the next, but the central journey of the main character is nevertheless fascinating. 

Outside of the sheer conceptual insanity on display here, Mitchell does show his unbridled appreciation for classic cinema and directors of yesteryear, leaving UNDER THE SILVER LAKE feeling like a love ballad to them.  Aspects of Sam's nosy character traits and his tendencies to curtail everyday boredom of feeling trapped within his apartment has definitive echoes of Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW, not to mention that his central drive to find the woman of his desires also has reverberations of VERTIGO (the brilliant music score by Disasterpeace also recalls the work of Bernard Hermann, a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock).  Sam's impromptu P.I. work is also very Philip Marlow-like, not to mention that aforementioned haunting visual tapestry of a David Lynch and Terry Gilliam comes to the forefront here in multiple ways.  Mitchell isn't a mere copycat, seeing as he imparts his film with sensational camerawork, stylish editing, and evocative production design that gives UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is own unique flavor despite appropriating many elements from other past and greater films.  There's also something darkly funny about Mitchell dissecting L.A. history and underground culture as a whole, which feeds into Sam's unwavering desire to get to the bottom of Sarah's disappearance. 

And what a pure surprise Garfield is in this film.  That's not to say that he isn't a gifted on screen performer with a rich resume, but he channels Sam's kooky charisma and his insufferable tendencies in a richly textured performance that doesn't beg audience members to root on and like this guy.  And Garfield, known for playing affable and big hearted protagonists before, really immerses himself in this confused, angry, and sometimes toxically anti-social degenerate, and l appreciate how his acting and Mitchell's script never tries to paint Sam in easily digestible layers.  Even when Mitchell's script goes completely off the rails into some frankly laughable tangents, Garfield's wide eye astonishment at every freaky U-turn he experiences while on his detective mission makes UNDER THE SILVER LAKE so macabre and sometimes hilarious to sit through. 

But, man, Mitchell really doesn't know when to stop in the film, and its 140 minute runtime doesn't do it any favors whatsoever.  This story is so crammed with crazy characters, ideas, themes, plot detours, and revelations that it becomes an exercise in overstuffed and undisciplined scripting.  There's an argument to be made that the film's rampant aimlessness mirrors the aimlessness of its hipster protagonist, which is fair, but Mitchell lets the whole affair get so bonkers that it becomes hard to emotionally latch on to anyone or anything.  The opening sections of UNDER THE SILVER LAKE are superbly effective and exemplarily conceived and executed, but as the story careers towards multiple conspiracy theories and a final and inevitable reveal seems to end the story with a whimper instead of a euphoric bang.  The final resolution is a letdown and paradoxically makes the film feel unfinished and lacking in true closure.  

Still, I'm recommending UNDER THE SILVER LAKE, albeit with strong reservations.  The film shows Mitchell as a burgeoning talent continually trying to escape his filmmaking comfort zones, even though he's clearly overextended himself here.  And in an age when far to many new directors play things achingly safe, I'm relieved to see Mitchell continuing to be a calculated risk taker, which excites me for what's to come in his career.  UNDER THE SILVER LAKE may be meandering and bizarrely purposeless on a basic narrative level, but as an experience it's undeniable alluring and rarely dull.

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