Review: Under the Silver Lake

by Andrew Parker

A staggering work of mind numbing self importance and borderline toxic nostalgia baiting, Under the Silver Lake is one of the most gorgeous, boring, and nonsensical films ever made. One would be hard pressed to find a film that puts more energy into mental and technical gymnastics for no emotional or intellectual gains whatsoever. The cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of sugar and downing it with a bottle of absinthe while falling asleep furiously masturbating to a Turner Movie Classics marathon, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the already grossly overrated horror movie phenomenon It Follows manages to be ambitiously artful and stultifyingly useless at the same time.

Set in 2011 for no real discernable reason that could logically be explained, Under the Silver Lake concerns 33-year old unemployed burnout Sam (Andrew Garfield), who spends most of his aimless days looking for patterns and hidden messages in otherwise mundane bits of pop culture ephemera. He has a nameless actress girlfriend (Riki Lindhome) and a nameless, preferred drinking buddy (Topher Grace), but he has recently become infatuated with a young woman named Sarah (Riley Keough) who lives at his apartment complex in the titular Los Angeles neighbourhood. They nearly hook up, but her roommates return home, and she invites him to return the following afternoon. When Sam returns, Sarah’s apartment is empty and abandoned, prompting him to investigate her sudden disappearance.

Before it goes so far off the deep end that James Cameron couldn’t find it with two-hundred million dollars and a submarine, Under the Silver Lake gets off to an admittedly intriguing, off-beat, and interesting start. Aided immensely once again by cinematographer and It Follows collaborator Mike Gioulakis, Mitchell frantically pulls a wide array of stylistic choices from his bag of tricks: pushes, zooms, tracking shots, close-ups, dolly shots, drone shots, crane shots, animatronic squirrels, sun soaked colours, and perfect symmetry that’s never broken for any reason. It’s dazzling to behold, but after about twenty minutes of noodling like a film studies bro heading up a jam band, Mitchell’s abundance of style becomes both the only thing Under the Silver Lake has going for it and the most annoying thing about it. It’s a film so eager and desperate to look amazing that it forgets to be engaging beyond its surface level.

Mitchell’s initial tone is also beguiling and creative. While it’s a film clearly made by someone raised on the pop culture of the 80s and 90s in terms of style and the deluge of references and signposts cluttering up the script, the dialogue and acting is straight out of romances and noirs of the 1940s and 50s and conspiracy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. In the early going, Under the Silver Lakes plays like both La La Land and an episode of The X-Files could be taking place blocks away. If only Mitchell could’ve sustained that unique tone for more than the first twenty minutes. After the incomprehensible (and ultimately superfluous) plot kicks into gear, Under the Silver Lake quickly devolves into a cavalcade of symbols, codes, inside jokes, red herrings, useless asides, and satirical jabs at the LA arts scene that are infrequently amusing and mostly self-congratulatory. Mitchell cycles through dissimilar modes and genres with so little regard for cohesiveness that it suggest a movie made by someone who deathly fears no one will allow them to make one ever again.

There’s a vague message about Los Angeles and the pop culture it creates being churned out by wealthy billionaires who control everyone’s life from a distance, but I defy anyone to make sense out of Under the Silver Lake beyond that. The plot revolves around an escort service, a missing billionaire, skunk infestations, a chronically topless neighbour with an annoying parrot, a dog killer, an underground zine, The Legend of Zelda, bomb shelters, rooftop parties, Nintendo Power magazine, Hitchcockian voyeurism, the Griffith Observatory, the king of the hobos, subliminal advertising messages, indie rock bands, Kurt Cobain’s guitar, kids keying a giant penis into the hood of Sam’s car, Vanna White, an outdoor movie screening in a graveyard, and probably two dozen other things of equal irrelevancy that I’ve either forgotten or blocked from memory. As a movie, it makes about as much sense as Billy Joel stringing together random names and phrases for “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” only that’s a four minute, repetitive sounding song, and Under the Silver Lake is a 140 minute movie that feels six years longer than it actually is.

The longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that Mitchell has no desire to link any of these threads together. There’s so little impactful material here that one could walk away from Under the Silver Lake for 2 minutes or two hours, and it would still make just as much sense when you came back. While most great art is made by artists who refuse to compromise, Under the Silver Lake is the type of film that indulges the director and precisely nobody else.

There’s some precedent for this specific kind of resolute failure, however, and Under the Silver Lake certainly isn’t alone in this category of cinematic freakouts, although it might be the worst example of them. Mitchell’s work here could be most easily compared to that of gonzo auteur Richard Kelly, the man behind Donnie Darko (which I can’t stand), Southland Tales (which I find crazy in all the right ways), and The Box (which I have no opinion of). Kelly’s films take a similar “throw everything you love at the wall and see what sticks” mentality that Mitchell is working overtime trying to emulate with Under the Silver Lake. But love Kelly or hate him, there’s something that his films have that Mitchell’s latest lacks entirely: actual characters worth following around. (Then again, the world has become so meme obsessed and attention spans are so shortened, that I fully believe Under the Silver Lake will have a glowing critical reappraisal in twenty years that you can firmly count me out of in advance.)

The only constant in Under the Silver Lake other than the city of Los Angeles (which is like a another character in the movie, man) is Garfield’s Sam, who knows only two settings: nerdy nebbish and intensely pissed off. We know little about him: he has a mother, he’s behind on his rent, and he likes to have sex with beautiful, artsy women. He doesn’t have much of a personality and not a single sympathetic trait that could be grasped. He’s a bit of a boor, but he’s an uninteresting one. It’s never clear if he’s crazy or just self-centred. Following Sam down a rabbit hole of puzzle pieces that never interlock is an absolute chore, especially when one notices that all of the side characters throughout Under the Silver Lake aren’t even given names to distinguish themselves from everyone else. Garfield plays his character with maximum awkwardness, but that doesn’t mean he’s much better than the picture around him.

Mitchell can’t figure out what he’s trying to say with all of this cinematic noise. His everyman antihero is a blank slate, and the world around him is too chaotic to comprehend. Is Under the Silver Lake representative of millenial or Generation Y types getting easily overwhelmed? Is it critical of Sam’s life choices or sympathetic towards a plight he created for himself? Is this a film about anything at all? Does Mitchell even care that his film has no actual meaning or would saying that offend his artistic sensibilities? Under the Silver Lake, which has seen its release date shifted half a dozen times since premiering at Cannes last year to a charitably mixed response before being shifted quietly to VOD this week, is being properly marketed as a mindbender, but the only important questions to ask oneself while watching it are: “Why are you doing this?” and “How are there still 90/60/30/20/10 minutes left when it feels like I’ve already watched twelve movies?” It’s a film made specifically for the type of “cinethusiast” whose first question upon meeting someone is “Have you seen Fight Club?”

Under the Silver Lake is available on iTunes and VOD on Friday, April 19, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Under the Silver Lake:

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Phillip N. April 19, 2019 - 11:06 am

Andrew –
Take another listen to Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.
It is most certainly not “stringing together random names and phrases”.
It is a cleverly compiled list of headlines pertaining to people, places and events composed in perfect rhyme and in exact chronological order starting from the year 1949 and continuing through to the year that the Cold War ended – 1989.
Your facile dismissal of it is superficial and ill-informed.

Oh Andrew April 26, 2019 - 4:13 am

Boy, Andrew, you tragically missed the mark on this one. Everything you listed, and portrayed in a negative light, was done on purpose by Mitchell who had total and absolute command over what he was trying to say. If it wasn’t your cup of tea that’s fine (Avengers opens this weekend, go see that) but that doesn’t mean the film was confused or made without competence.

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