The fixation with Los Angeles in a lot of films shouldn’t really come as much of a shock. In a city that manufactures dreams and drama, there’s got to be some stories worth telling, right? Hell of an understatement there, van der Meer. Under the Silver Lake, the much-delayed follow-up feature by It Follows filmmaker David Robert Mitchell, enters the halls of cinematic seediness in the City of Angels. ‘Cept it ain’t been done quite like this before.
Under the Silver Lake
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Release Date: April 19th, 2019 (Limited and VOD)
Sam (Andrew Garfield) is late-’20s early-’30s bit of a burnout kind of guy, days past rent in his LA apartment and without any real job to speak of. Where a lot of these Hollywood burnout archetypes are failed writers or struggling actors, Sam just doesn’t seem to want to do… anything. Except smoke a bit and fawn over urban legend. A spat of zest in his life then, when Sarah (Riley Keough) appears as his new next door neighbor. Beautiful, attracting Sam’s creeping voyeurism, she and Sam make contact and share a nice joint and movie session. Hurried out, Sam makes plans to stop by the next day and Sarah is gone. Not just out-for-mineral water gone, she’s split. If it isn’t bolted down it’s vanished with her, and a perplexed Sam looks to track down the sudden disappearance, entering a world of Hollywood weirdos, dog-hating murderers and maybe some organized homeless people. Oh, and Nintendo Power Magazine. Yeah.
Under the Silver Lake plays much like a spin on the classic LA detective story. The score is overt, dramatic, and brassy. It Follows composer Disasterpiece returns in an incredible display of his range following that film’s John Carpenter-inspired synth nightmare. The brass blaring, Sarah is played as the femme fatale, while Sam is our Philip Marlowe bumbling along. Silver Lake owes a clear debt to Robert Altman’s 1973 masterpiece The Long Goodbye, in which Marlowe, known mostly as a suave Humphrey Bogart, was re-envisioned as a chain-smoking slacker detective by Elliott Gould. But Elliott Gould didn’t have to contend with the Owl’s Kiss, people.
Sam obsesses over a limited-run underground magazine called, wait for it, “Under the Silver Lake.” It chronicles mysterious happenings in Los Angeles revolving around a supernatural murderess (our aforementioned Owl), as well as stories surrounding a recent string of brutal, bizarre dog murders that have been plaguing the area. Under the Silver Lake revels in its urban horror and conspiracy weirdness, Sam’s sunny odyssey photographed in smash-bang, dynamic style of split-diopter shots, whip-zooms, handheld madness, animated interludes and more. Mitchell doesn’t assault you with the camera, but he’s like the stoner at the party who really wants you to think about how did they build the pyramids..?
There’s an acquired-taste aesthetic to Silver Lake, likely the reason for its distributor’s lack of a push in marketing or release, and the general juggling of its release to theaters. From the start, Silver Lake’s dreamy tone and strange strangers recall something like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another surreal trip through California’s Cincinnati. A viewer who doesn’t buy into the heightened reality and inexplicable coincidences might dismiss Mitchell’s ride as being poorly-written or acted, and without an anchor. The film’s most shocking bit of violence serves as a great example. Is it meant to be serious, funny, or goofy? The middle ground and shock value sort of leaves you in the realm of just straight terrifying.
Under the Silver Lake will be a divisive film, yet it might be its audience-splitting qualities that make it a worthwhile experiment. You make a film about paranoia, and make the filmmaking itself crazy. Here you have characters searching for hidden messages and subliminal signals, jumping from one dot to another so sporadically, that the audience is inevitably wrapped up in just how deep the thing goes. Arguably the film’s biggest, most-dramatic revelatory moment had me utterly engrossed, transfixed, and not quite drinking the Kool-Aid, but thinking “Man, that is such a great idea for a filmic conspiracy!” It blindsides you a bit, as the best surprises ought to.
To enjoy Under the Silver Lake most, I think it’s advisable to expect nothing and be ready for everything. Everything is a lot. It’s almost like… a lot. Does “a lot” always work? It’s tough to say. Running at two hours and nineteen minutes long, Silver Lake isn’t a particularly short film. We track from one lead to a next in our spiral down Hollywood’s dark side, and whether an audience is fulfilled by the buffoonery of slacker Sam and his number-counting, crazy map drawing antics is going to be up to how they start the film. Again, expect nothing, and be ready for everything.
One of my favorite films of all time is Repo Man, a 1984 punk rock, Emilio Estevez-and-Harry Dean Stanton mash of a movie. Repo Man concerns itself with aliens and LA weirdos in a way that I think Under the Silver Lake shows a fondness for the lost and curious in Los Angeles. It’s scrappy and weird, both in content and composition, and will no doubt turn an audience in one direction or the other; only strong opinions allowed with this one. So that you fall on the good side of that line, I’d implore you to give Silver Lake a chance. Let the weirdness wash over you, don’t expect an answer for every quirky thread, and see how far down this rabbit hole goes. Oh and don’t eat the entire cookie. Trust me.