David Robert Mitchell previously turned pastiche into high terror with It Follows, a quasi-giallo horror film that used sexual metaphor to both reinforce and solidify genre. His follow-up Under the Silver Lake does the same and then some, this time setting its sights on film noir traditions and even the slacker comedy. This time, Mitchell is ambitious without abandon, crafting another grimey piece of thoughtful genre exercise but miring it in intentional obliqueness. For better or worse (and there are equal doses of both qualifiers), Under the Silver Lake feels like Mitchell prematurely cashing in on all of his earned credit.
Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an unkempt and aimless young man in his early 30s who spends his Los Angeles days in a pop culture haze and lazily checking out the women in his apartment complex. He sparks up a connection with the casual Sarah (played by Riley Keough) before she suddenly disappears and under suspicious circumstances. When Sam attempts to find this new object of affection, he begins a quest throughout the city’s underground that leads to rabbit holes within rabbits holes of paranoia, drugs, sex, and cults.
Mitchell examines noir tropes within a modern setting and sense of contemporary displacement. The influences here appear to be David Lynch and Hunter S. Thompson, while the film’s characteristic meandering intends to examine a certain state of being and without conclusion. We are given a host of personalities with minor oddball intrigue with a suggested but unclarified significance – femme fatales, shadowy figures, a sexpot rockstar named Jesus. It’s a movie where all of its incongruous characters read like the children of Batman villains – it’s part Looney Tunes on downers, part Waiting for Godot at Coachella.
Gifted with a gorgeous Disasterpeace score that recalls Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein and shot by Mike Gioulakis with spooky magical realism, the film’s aesthetic riff on the genre is one of its unqualified successes. Though its tone may not always be precise, the film is a bevy of lurid, enigmatic imagery that ultimately serves its closing reflections. Mitchell remains, in this much more ambitious film, an alluring stylist.
Yet it’s easier to admire the film for what it’s attempting to achieve rather than how it achieves it. Though it’s frustrations and myopias are by design and precisely the point, Mitchell seldom sets a discernible mood, certainly not to he arresting heights he did with It Follows. This film is plagued with a tonal sameness that may unlock Sam’s depressive, obsessive psychosis, but what’s missing is an arc or variance in tension. The effect is like psychedelics without the extremity, or neon without the vibrancy.
Lake may have a thick sheen of malaise but it’s also never boring either. Each of Sam’s newly unearthed red herrings in search for Sarah come with open interpretations for meaning, both as representative of Los Angeles’ sprawling cult of personality and as a splinter of Sam’s perceptions. Most don’t all naturally branch off from eachother as a natural progression of ideas, showing that Mitchell might be losing his previously firm grasp of his narrative for the sake of just putting it all in there. Garfield however is the film’s steady vessel, a subtly cuckoo performance that is also thankfully restrained.
Ultimately, the film reveals itself as a study of pubescent male meaninglessness, and a gracious one. Sam’s journey is one of enlightenment, of discovering everything that has been packaged for him – cinema, music, and especially sexualized imagery of women – is from the same machine turning him into its mindless follower. It’s a film about the power of imagery that first utilizes its male gaze to deceive us, using itself as an example of what Sam needs to move past. In upending the traditions of noir, not to mention stooping the film in Hollywood history and teen boy pop culture literacy, Mitchell takes the risk of making the film the very thing he is critiquing.
If by the end of the film, Sam is ready to grow up and move on, it also feels like Under the Silver Lake is Mitchell wrestling with something he needs to get out of his system. It’s fascinating, but not without its frustrations.