Writer/director David Robert Mitchell made his feature debut back in 2010 with the coming of age drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, but he really announced himself with his followup, 2014’s It Follows, arguably the best horror movie of the past decade. With that film, Mitchell displayed an innate understanding of what makes a horror movie tick, and most of us thought he would stay in the genre, with many putting his name forward as a potential director for the rebooted Halloween franchise. It’s a surprise then that Mitchell has confounded expectations with Under the Silver Lake, a rambling gonzo adventure that largely defies categorization. It may be his third feature, but it plays very much like a ‘difficult second album’, in this case a four-sided prog rock concept album complete with gate-fold sleeve.
Andrew Garfield is Sam, an entitled thirty-something twerp who lives in a relatively plush Los Angeles apartment (for which he hasn’t bothered to pay rent in quite some time), seems to get by without working and has an adorable manic pixie dream girl friend with benefits (Riki Lindholme) who regularly calls over for some afternoon delight. One day he spots his pretty neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) sunbathing and is immediately smitten. He introduces himself to Sarah and the two spend a pleasant evening watching How to Marry a Millionaire together.
The next day, Sam is shocked to discover Sarah’s apartment has been emptied and she’s left with no forwarding address. When he sees a mysterious young woman (Zosia Mamet) taking a box from Sarah’s vacated home, Sam follows her, and so begins his journey into a bizarre Los Angeles underworld as he searches for his missing neighbor.
Within his film’s first few minutes, Mitchell references and rips off such disparate movies as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Sam has a female neighbor who likes to prance around on her balcony sans clothing), Hitchcock’s Vertigo and De Palma’s Body Double. It’s a movie so packed with pop culture references and nods to cinema history that Mitchell makes Quentin Tarantino look Amish by comparison.
What distinguishes Mitchell from Tarantino is his self-awareness in this regard, and his movie has much to say about the very modern phenomenon of mass produced pop culture being sold in a manner that makes the consumer feel like they’re participating in a revolution simply by handing over their dollars to consume it (look at how Disney monetizes outrage in its marketing of films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel). While uncovering a They Live-esque conspiracy run by California’s elites, Sam comes across The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), an ancient man who claims to have written every hit pop song since the dawn of recorded music. Sam is shocked to learn that Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ was knocked off by this man in an afternoon, composed on his piano in the living room of his sprawling Hollywood mansion rather than by Kurt Cobain on his guitar in a Seattle garage. Sam reacts with shocking violence.
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Under the Silver Lake is brutally honest about the toxicity of fanboys, but it’s also a film itself packed with the cultural detritus of geekdom. Sam’s apartment is adorned with framed posters for ‘50s b-movies, and like the good little hipster he is, he doesn’t play his video games on a Playstation Four, but on a ‘90s Nintendo system. Personally, I’m a lover of ‘50s b-movies and while I have no interest in video games, if forced, I would rather play Super Mario Kart than the lifelike games of today’s systems. I know watching Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t an act of rebellion, but sue me for finding it a fun way to kill 90 minutes. Mitchell draws on cinephiles’ love of our favorite art form while making us feel shitty about ourselves. Under The Silver Lake is like Ready Player One, had it been made by Michael Haneke.
In critiquing fanboys and male entitlement, Mitchell forces us to spend two hours and 20 minutes in the presence of one of the most unlikeable protagonists of recent years. I get that his film is essentially Black Orpheus by way of The Searchers, a story of an entitled male who descends into an underworld to rescue a girl who probably doesn’t want to be rescued, but Garfield is no John Wayne. When Wayne’s racist anti-hero Ethan Edwards tells us how much he hates Native Americans, we lean forward, drawn in by the sheer power of Wayne’s clenched fist rage, wondering what prompted this hatred that has destroyed his humanity. When Garfield’s Sam tells us how much he hates the homeless, we simply think “What a dick!” and move on to the next bizarro sequence. It’s also a little telling that Mitchell spends so much time portraying men as a horrible bunch of bastards that he neglects to create and female characters that are more than one-dimensional.
Under the Silver Lake annoyed the hell out of me, but I’d be lying if I said I was ever disengaged. Mitchell’s filmmaking is at times exquisite, and his movie contains images that will stick with me when far better 2019 movies will have faded into obscurity. The score by Disasterpeace is beautifully dark and lush, evoking Blue Velvet era David Lynch, as does Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography, which makes innocuous suburban streets seem sinister, and Mitchell’s eerie habit of dissolving out of a scene a few seconds before the point other filmmakers would cut it. On the other hand, I only laughed once (Sam physically beating the lard out of a pair of bratty kids), so comedy clearly isn’t Mitchell’s strong point.
I have a feeling I may return to Under the Silver Lake in a decade or so and smack myself for not recognizing its true genius, but today, in 2019, it’s merely a commendable failure, probably the best bad movie you’ll see all year. I can’t wait to see what Mitchell does next.
Under the Silver Lake - 3 stars out of 5
Directed by:David Robert Mitchell; Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Riki Lindhome, Callie Hernandez, Zosia Mamet, Grace Van Patten