Under the Silver Lake Review

When you hear neo-noir, what do you think of? The dark underbelly of a city? A detective with a broken moral compass? Illusive women? Venetian blinds? Well, Under the Silver Lake has all of that. And more. Much, much more.

But contrary to the film’s marketing, Under the Silver Lake is not like Mulholland Dr., nor is it like Chinatown. Whether it wants to be is unclear. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows follow-up is a bold, beguiling tale about erotic obsession and paranoia set in L.A.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a 30 something slacker, who by his own admission ‘does nothing’. He’s behind on rent and has five days to pay up before he gets evicted, but doesn’t care enough to rustle up the cash.  What he does care about though is breaking the code connecting all the missing links. To what? Well, to everything. For Sam, everything is a clue leading him to the big reveal. It’s unclear why he is so fixated on figuring out the mystery of the world. Is he just bored? Has he read his dog-eared copy of “Inherent Vice” one too many times (with frantic notes scribbled in the margins, no doubt) and fancies himself a stoner detective? Regardless of his motive, you get the sense that Sam, much like Mitchell, isn’t satisfied with a resolution.

In its 2 hours 20 minutes running time, the film cobbles together subplots and tangents but its main narrative thread is found in the disappearance of a mysterious blonde. On one sunny Los Angeles day, Sam spots a gorgeous woman named Sarah (Riley Keough) with a small white-cloud of a dog at her heels and a portable CD player in her hand walk to the pool. Later, he wanders over to her apartment, and after getting stoned, they share a kiss on which an obsession builds. The following day, Sam finds her place completely empty, with just a shoe-box of mysteries and a polaroid selfie for him to begin his scavenger hunt. Except, in this scavenger hunt, anything and everything is a clue: a used pizza box, a vintage cereal box with a map on the back, a Nintendo Power magazine, etc.

It’s a credit to the intensely likeable Garfield that he can make us not want to recoil from Sam. Indeed, Sam isn’t your average nice, geeky guy. He spies on his perpetually topless neighbor, confesses to ‘hating the homeless’ and beats up a couple of vandalizing boys. Ultimately, Sam just wants to get laid. And as for all the secondary female characters, well that’s exactly what they feel like: secondary and defined by their (at times baffling) attraction to Sam. But Mitchell doesn’t know whether to embrace the male gaze or fight against it. Can you make an homage to classic Hollywood cinema without the disposable women? Mitchell doesn’t seem quite sure. In that regard, he slacks off harder than his protagonist.

But as the plot develops and Sam’s grip on reality deteriorates, we see the two as synchronous. The further down the rabbit hole he goes, the more it leads back to him, and his own unfounded obsessions. The main fault with the film isn’t that Sam’s findings are ultimately inconclusive, but that they aren’t particularly compelling ones. When a millionaire songwriter gleefully reveals to Sam that he has authored every single pop song he’s ever heard of and cherished (including “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), what does Sam do? He smashes his head with Kurt Cobain’s guitar. The idea that all of our teen anthems were written by one white dude is neither surprising nor sinister, especially when the man in question is layers deep in prosthetics. What’s so radical about that?

Many of the oddities of the film are not given the opportunity to be bonafide mysteries. They’re just, well, weird. Of course, it’s easy to look at quirky, unexplained characters and set-pieces and label them as odd in order to avoid engaging with them, but it’s as if Mitchell has already done the labeling. Either he wants his audience to accept things at face-value or he wants us to read into them as some meta-commentary on how we engage with pop culture. Perhaps it’s up to each spectator to decide.

Under the Silver Lake is an entertaining mess of a film. It dances with so many styles, themes and subplots, but leaves the audience feeling dizzy. Nonetheless, there is a great film in there. I suspect that’s why A24 has pushed the release date six months, in order to rediscover a shorter, more concise cut. But in regards to this version, which has the makings of a cult classic, it’s the perfect film if you want to ride shotgun down a lost highway.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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