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Under the Silver Lake

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/18/19 16:37:19

"It Follows"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Man, what a difference a year makes. it was just about this time last year that the anticipation level for “Under the Silver Lake,” the mysterious new film from David Robert Mitchell (his first since the release of his indie horror hit “It Follows”), hit a fever pitch when it became one of the two U.S. films to play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the word after the premiere was not particularly good and while some critics found some interesting things about it, many dismissed it as a weird and unfocused misfire from a talented filmmaker who had bitten off far more than he could possibly chew. After that, things quickly went downhill as its distributor decided to delay its summer release until Christmastime amidst rumors that Mitchell was working on a reedit. Then it was mysteriously yanked from the Christmas schedule at the last minute and disappeared from view until it was recently announced that the entire release of what was once considered to be a big-ticket item had been reduced to a grand total of two theaters this weekend followed by it hitting VOD this coming Tuesday.

In most cases, a dump of this sort would suggest some kind of unmitigated disaster but in this particular case, I still found myself holding out some kind of hope for it. For starters, Mitchell’s previous works, including his acclaimed debut “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” were so well-made and self-assured that it seem highly implausible that his artistic faculties could have eluded him so completely here. More importantly, even though a lot of the reviews were negative, they were negative in a way that certainly made it sound interesting and the films that it was most often compared to, especially Richard Kelly’s wild “Southland Tales,” tended to be ones that I have admired greatly as well. Therefore, when I sat down to watch it at last, it was with a sense of intense curiosity and strangely enough, that is exactly the feeling that I had once it was all over with. Yes, by most conventional standards, “Under the Silver Lake” is a wild and misshapen mess that has either too many or too few ideas for its own good and no clear through line to bring them all together into a completely coherent or satisfying whole. That said, if one abandons those conventional standards, along with most notions of common sense, the film proves to be a weird and wobbly sort-of triumph, the kind that may not be nearly as good or as satisfying as most ordinary movies of late but which contains moments that I will recall long after those good and satisfying movies have evaporated from memory.

Our hero is Sam (Andrew Garfield), an L.A. layabout of such profound laziness and ingrained inertia that he makes Jeff Lebowski (the bowling one) seem like a go-getting straight arrow by comparison. Sam has no job and is literally five days from being booted out of his apartment for not paying his rent—not that he seems to even notice such things at all. Hell, not even the half-naked neighbor that he spies on with his binoculars nor the woman (Riki Lindhome) who comes over for sex are able to jolt him out of his terminal sense of ennui. That all changes one day when he trains his binoculars on a mysterious dog-toting blonde tanning herself by the pool and is instantly besotted. Later that night, he meets the woman, Sarah (Riley Keough), again and the two hang out for a little while before Sarah has to take off, though she invites Sam to come over the next afternoon. When he does show up, however, he finds that she has disappeared and that her entire apartment has been stripped bare except for a box of various items on the top shelf of a closet and a mysterious logo written on the wall.

While pondering his next move, another person (Zosia Mamet) lets herself into the apartment and grabs the box before taking off in a nearby car. This spurs Sam into action at last and he gets into his own car to give pursuit. This is the leadoff to a long and increasingly convoluted storyline in which his single-minded pursuit of Sarah finds him crossing paths with the case of a recently disappeared business mogul, a rock band named Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, an underground cartoonist who seems to know everything about the shadowy secret of Los Angeles, a group of starlets who moonlight as sex workers, codes, conspiracies, the urban legend of a naked woman in an owl mask who kills people during sex, an endangered heiress (Callie Hernandez) and shocking revelations about the monolithic nature of contemporary popular culture and its influence on the masses. And perhaps in anticipation that some might refer to the narrative as being little more than a shaggy dog story, the film even throws in a subplot involving a mysterious dog killer into the proceedings for good measure.

If nothing else, “Under the Silver Lake” is certainly a film that wears its influences on its sleeve—Mitchell’s screenplay at times plays like a compilation of the greatest hits of Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, David Lynch, Thomas Pynchon, the Coen Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock and people on the Internet who post at great and excruciatingly detailed length about vast and complex conspiracies that exist entirely in their own deluded imaginations. As someone who has never shied away from crazy-go-nuts films in the past and who greatly admires all of the obvious influences I have cited above (save for the Internet nutburgers), this would seem on paper to be the very epitome of my particular kind of cinematic jam but I kept finding myself at a strange sort of distance from it all. Part of it is the fact that I could never quite shake the sense that Mitchell was simply jerking viewers around with every new bit of weirdness that he would add to the proceedings instead of actually building towards something. (It probably should not come as a surprise that masturbation comes up a lot here.) A bigger problem, however, is the fact that our guide through the increasingly convoluted goings-on, Sam, proves to be a singularly uninspiring and unlikable sort. Veering between near-narcoleptic passivity (it is no surprise to learn that his longest-lasting relationship is with an old issue of Playboy he discovered in his dad’s bedroom when he was a kid) and fits of unfocused rage that find him raging against the homeless and literally beating up a group of kids he catches egging cars (which is funny at first but goes on way too long) as he goes about pursuing his singular obsession to the exclusion of everything else, he is like a poster boy for incels, which would be okay if the film at least copped to it, which it doesn’t.

And yet, as messy as “Under the Silver Lake” is as a whole, there are stretches when it does demonstrate enough oddball charm to keep viewers both interested and hopeful that it will eventually pull itself together. For the most part, it doesn’t take itself especially seriously and its low-key loopiness has a certain appeal that keeps it bopping along. The actors, for the most part, seem to be having a good time that fits in with the laid-back vibe of the narrative. I also enjoyed the film’s acidic take on contemporary popular culture, a conceit in which everything from the classic stars of the silver screen to old issues of Nintendo Power magazine to cereal boxes have somehow been seemingly bestowed with equal talismanic significance, even though that significance eventually proves to be hollow to nonexistent in nearly every case. This notion comes to the forefront in what is easily the film’s best scene, in which Sam encounters a reclusive man who more or less explains the plot, largely via a musical medley, that is equally funny and audacious before ending on a decidedly brutal note. If the entire movie had equalled this particular sequence, the film might have become the masterpiece it is clearly aiming to be but it feels too often as if Mitchell came up with the idea for this particular scene and then tried to construct an entire narrative that it could somehow fit into.

“Under the Silver Lake” is a film that never quite “works,” as they say, and I have no doubt that most viewers will find it to be an endless and oftentimes baffling bore. However, I have to admit that as uneven and scattershot as it gets at times, I developed a certain strange fascination with it right from the start that kept me more or less compelled despite all the dead ends and missed opportunities on display. It may not be a great film by any stretch of the imagination but if I had to pick a current film that people might be talking and obsessing about ten or twenty years from now, I would bet that this would be a far more likely title than most of today’s big hits and award winners by a long shot.

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