Published Jul 20, 2018Under the Silver Lake couldn't be more different than the critically acclaimed It Follows, director David Robert Mitchell's second feature that rocketed him to mainstream success. The indie film world waited with bated breath for his next film, expecting it to be another moody, atmospheric horror. Instead, we got Under the Silver Lake — an absurdist Millennial noir, more interesting in scope than his previous features, that plays out like The Big Lebowski with L.A. hipsters. Owing equal debts to Raymond Chandler, David Lynch, David Foster Wallace and Sunset Boulevard, Under the Silver Lake is a mess, but it's an ambitious, fascinating one that has a lot of fun playing in the sandbox.
Summarizing Under the Silver Lake in a single paragraph is a difficult endeavour, but the central hub of its strange, absurdist web of plot threads is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a perpetually horny, unemployed slacker who smokes pot, obsesses over Jeopardy conspiracy theories, and ogles his attractive female neighbours. When gorgeous Sarah (Riley Keough) moves in one day, Sam is besotted. After the two get high and share a kiss together, Sarah and her roommates mysteriously move out the next morning. Sam, convinced Sarah's disappearance has something to do with a bizarre indie comic book called "Under the Silver Lake," quickly develops an obsession with tracking her down.
From there, Sam floats through a surrealist version of Hollywood, and becomes mixed up with a Jesus-themed rock band, serial dog killers, sexy balloon dancers, pirate limo drivers, owl women and royal hobos. Under the Silver Lake is frequently very funny, in a refreshingly goofy kind of way – on paper it seems like exactly the type of film to take itself too seriously, but thankfully, that doesn't happen.
The camera spends a lot of time seeing female characters through the voyeuristic Sam's eyes, and butts and tits abound. But it's always done with a satirical nod to the particularly anachronistic way the male gaze functioned in classical Hollywood cinema — static, focused solely on a beautiful woman as the score swells and she smiles towards the camera. Under the Silver Lake is obsessed with these little details that recreate the weirdness and mystery of the hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle — what's inside those glamorous houses on the hills, and what sorts of sordid things are happening within their walls?
It's all wrapped in a dizzying kaleidoscope of meta references. At one point, Sam watches part of The Myth of the American Sleepover, Mitchell's first feature — but recast with actors from Under the Silver Lake. It's clear that an admirable amount of work went into putting together the film's central mystery, wrapping clues within magazine covers, posters and all sorts of "blink-and-you-miss-it" background moments. It's all incredibly set and staged, and further works to enforce that particular brand of seedy L.A. paranoia rampant in films like Mulholland Drive.
But at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, the fun of tumbling down the rabbit hole with Sam wears thin as we start to wonder when this story is going to pull itself together. Refusing to provide audiences with too-pat answers is a noble effort, but rejecting any sort of narrative logic is quite another. It's all too loose, too untethered. Under the Silver Lake runs on the steam of its own metaphors, but they can't propel this film towards a meaningful interpretation.