Under the Silver Lake is the sort of movie I'm a sucker for. Overly ambitious and densely plotted and stuffed to the brim with ideas about modernity and pop culture and the meaning of it all, David Robert Mitchell's follow up to the critically acclaimed It Follows never quite coheres into something solid enough to grapple with.
The film, which debuted at Cannes in 2018 and sat on distributor A24's shelf for a year before being dumped on VOD last week, is destined for cult status. It's a strange mixture of Mullholland Drive‘s unsettled view of Los Angeles, Inherent Vice‘s meandering shaggy dog mystery, and Neil Postman's portrait of self-induced decadence, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The tangential moments in Mitchell's film—which nominally concerns Sam (Andrew Garfield), a burnout Los Angeleno about to be evicted trying to track down his beautiful neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough), who has suddenly disappeared—are more interesting than the main thrust of the plot. Riffs on the nature of advertising, the lure and despair of being young and aimless in Los Angeles, and the vacuity of pop entertainment captivate for moments at a time.
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Garfield is solid as a wide-eyed OCD case whose efforts to connect the dots do, eventually, pay off. He has a sort of sad twitchiness to him, a malaise that shifts harshly into manic fits. Keough is underused as Sarah, though her status as the missing woman in need of finding makes that somewhat inevitable. Strong bit performances by Topher Grace, Grace Van Patten, Zosia Mamet, Luke Baines, Jimmi Simpson, Patrick Fischler, and Don McManus ensure that the film is never dull. There's always an interesting face in the frame—or pair of legs or breasts, or a butt in short shorts, shot from a low angle to emphasize its curve. One is tempted to guess that Mitchell gave an extra a line about the devastating impact of "the male gaze" in order to inoculate himself from criticism for indulging relentlessly in it.
Having watched Under the Silver Lake twice now, I'm not entirely sure it works. Visually, it's a bit overcooked. Mitchell tends to use cinematic tools that don't quite fit the moment, as when he employs a modest dolly zoom following the death of a squirrel or when he places the camera at shin-height and speeds it through the aisles of a book store for no real reason or when he uses a dissolve to cut from an interior to an exterior instead of using it to demonstrate the passage of time (as he does effectively elsewhere, when Sam is driving and walking and paddle boating through L.A.). He also employs some flashy homages, as when he uses a split-field diopter shortly after we see a gravestone marked Hitchcock, that don't add up to much.
Perhaps this over-stylization represents Sam's more manic moments, and they will grow on me over the years. As I said, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, and there's a chance that the sum of its parts will outweigh the soggy whole as years go by. Sam's trippy adventures through the heart of the Entertainment-Industrial Complex are all just strange enough to be entrancing: Mitchell's camera twirls around a party at the rooftop pool of The Standard hotel; Sam goes to war against the greatest musician of all time, a mysterious pied piper pulling the wool over the collective eyes of each new generation of teenager; threats of a murderous Owl Woman and a rampaging Dog Killer loom over the proceedings like twin harbingers of animalistic death.
I'm hesitant to outright recommend or reject Under the Silver Lake. Perusing the character names on its IMDB listing will give you a sense of whether or not this is the movie for you. Topher Grace plays "Bar Buddy," a "Balloon Girl" plays a key role in helping Sam unravel the mysterious disappearance of Sarah, and appearances by a "Topless Bird Woman" bookend the movie. On top of all that there's a fictional band whose work is performed by the very real and very Los Angeles-based Silversun Pickups—and whose songs contain secret messages that lead to milk.
If you're confused by what you've read thus far … well, that's kind of the point. And if you're bored by what you've read thus far … well, that isn't the point, I don't think, but consider it my attempt to offer a simulacrum of the Under the Silver Lake experience. It's a conscious artistic choice I've made, you see, one that you have to respect and roll with if you want to understand the true meaning of meaninglessness. If you can't handle that, man, it's on you.