Director: David Robert Mitchell
Stars: Riley Keough, Andrew Garfield, Callie Hernandez
David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake is a woozy, rambling, blissed-out epic, the kind seen before when Hollywood tries (and fails) to swallow up a new and interesting voice from the indie stratosphere. Mitchell hit paydirt in 2014 with his word-of-mouth horror gem It Follows. In a vein similar to that of Richard Kelly before him, he now turns his eye to the city (and new home) that has surely been wooing him. Silver Lake is a sprawling send-up of Los Angeles, as irreverent as it is honestly in awe of the magic created there.
Andrew Garfield plays Sam; a laconic young man who lives in the expensive city despite no discernible source of income, just as a whole tribe of his peers seem to. They have nothing to be getting on with other than migrate between a series of pool parties and movie screenings.
Sam is a lech who likes to peer at his neighbours through binoculars like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (the first of an exhaustive list of cinematic nods included by Mitchell). One day his attention is caught by the appearance of Sarah (Riley Keough), walking her dog and wearing a big floppy hat. Like all women that Sam meets, she invites him into her bed. The next day she goes missing. His life empty of any other drive, Sam embraces the mystery and sets out on a week-long odyssey to find out what happened to her.
Over the course of 2 and a quarter ambling hours, Mitchell presents us his carnival of Tinseltown. Instead of littering his landscape with celeb cameos ala Altman, he chooses to populate his boulevards and palisades with the nearly-made-its, the almosts and – in increasing numbers – the whacko conspiracy theorists. It’s a heightened world in which the rules of film noir are in constant effect. Mysteries beget mysteries and women exist merely on the peripheries as flighty conquests or obscure objects of desire.
Sam doesn’t even know Sarah, really. He doesn’t stop to ask himself why he pursues her so doggedly, encountering ever-stranger scenarios and coincidences along the way. His reflection in the film is Patrick Fischler’s far-gone crackpot, searching for the meaning of life in a maze drawn on a cereal box. Mitchell suggests an entire generation that has been set adrift by science. With fewer and fewer mysteries in the world, these people seek to create their own, establishing unsolvable conundrums that they can obsess over without end.
There are myriad motifs at play here, and plenty that link back to Mitchell’s prior films. A preoccupation with swimming gains greater ground here and, as with It Follows before it, the photography of Gregory Crewdson feels like a persistent reference point. Actual footage from his debut The Myth Of The American Sleepover is set to new purpose here, too. Urban folk-lore is sprinkled like icing sugar, also. Here, Sam comes to fear the myth of the Owl’s Kiss; a succubus-like feminine creature with the head of an owl that preys on young men, lending sequences within the film an air of Eyes Wide Shut (its as overly sexualised) or Georges Franju’s surreal 60’s adventure Judex.
For cinephiles, Silver Lake is a veritable map to the stars. Noir pointers are obvious (Chinatown, Inherent Vice, Body Double), but Mitchell throws dog biscuits further afield. On more than one occasion he has female characters’ speech become the yapping of dogs. This seems like an intentional reference to Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 landmark Love Me Tonight, which employed a similar effect for the first time; dislocating the use of sound from literalism.
There’s plenty to decry and accuse of folly here, and many already have. Things get more and more incredulous as Sam’s journey goes on, taking pot shots at Scientology and Los Angeles’ long and complex history of exploiting the vulnerable or the easily led. The film’s depiction of women, as inferred, is problematic, but so is Hollywood’s. Recent years have revealed it’s a nest of vipers. Silver Lake is arguably saved by its tone. This is clearly a comedy; a satire of Hollywood. Or a flat-out (if flippant) indictment. It doesn’t feel as though Mitchell trusts his new home. Still, the long running time and meandering internal logic of the film will not suit all tastes, and a middling imdb average is virtually assured (at the time of writing it sits on an about-as-expected 6.3).
But Under The Silver Lake isn’t for everyone. It has a deep vein of 90’s nostalgia to it, befitting the age of its creator. Sam dances like an idiot to R.E.M. at an ironic party. He loves Nirvana. While it lampoons the cultural perception of millennials, it absolutely eyes them as a target market.
There’s an undercurrent of melancholy here, too. One of the (many) subplots is about a dog killer on the loose, firing instant connections to HBO’s divine puzzlebox series The Leftovers. In Silver Lake all of pop culture is connected, so perhaps I’m not too far out on a limb here. Building this bridge infects Silver Lake with a sense of impending cataclysm. These jobless, rich yet wealthless young men and women start to feel like the last of their kind. Ghosts of the species. In turn, Mitchell populates his Hollywood with a cornucopia of animals. In quick succession at the start of the picture Sam encounters a squirrel, a skunk, a parrot and a dog. Later on coyotes become kind of important. One senses the animals waiting for the people to fail or dissolve into apathy, so that they can have the world back again.
With its King of the Homeless (yep, he wears a crown) and its parade of jokers and sexpots, Mitchell’s film also feels as though it identifies, spiritually, with the work of Gilliam. There’s a shaggy dog quality to Sam’s stumbling pursuit. Like Gilliam before him, one suspects Mitchell won’t particularly want to be molded for mass consumption, and will continue to pursue his own whims so long as financiers back him. For all its troubles, there are a wealth of incredibly likeable things about this film, and its very existence at a time when originality is decried as dead in Hollywood seems like a minor miracle.