Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Producer: Michael De Luca, Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, Adele Romanski, David Robert Mitchell
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez, Don McManus, Jeremy Bobb, Riki Lindhome, Zosia Mamet, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson
Secret codes, hidden messages, and an enigmatic missing woman drive an underachieving man to solve a cryptic L.A. mystery.
At a party shortly after screening the movie, I told a friend I had just seen “Under the Silver Lake.” Even though she seems generally clued into the genre cinema scene as much as any average film fan, she surprisingly hadn’t heard of it. She asked, “oh, what’s that?”
I thought a quick summation would easily roll off my tongue with immediacy. Instead, I found myself briefly stammering once or thrice as I clawed for succinct sentences.
“It’s from the guy who did ‘It Follows,’ (review here)” I reductively said, not unlike every other write-up glomming onto obvious details. “I really liked that,” my friend responded. I went on, “well, it’s a humorous mystery that puts some of that same macabre undercurrent in its mood, but it isn’t a horror film.” Thinking about the awkwardness of that statement, I correctively added, “actually, I don’t mean humorous as in funny. It’s not comedic so much as ‘quirky,’ like if Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a neo-noir crime thriller with a tongue tucked into its arthouse cheek.”
I’m not sure that assessment accurately encapsulates “Under the Silver Lake” either, although the entirety of that ordinary anecdote kind of does. Chatter concerning “Under the Silver Lake” is as likely to be about context as content. By that I mean viewers may find themselves in similar circumstances when discussing their personal experiences with the film.
One could describe “Under the Silver Lake” by its setup. You could technically say it’s “about” Sam, an unemployed slacker-type in a Jungle Hunt t-shirt sleepwalking his way through the slice of Los Angeles where 20/30-somethings struggle to stay afloat after Hollywood dreams have been cracked by nightmares of bill-collecting reality.
Sam’s conspiracy theory belief about pop culture overflowing with hidden messages meant for unidentified elites takes two sharp turns along his disjointed journey. The first comes when he reads an underground zine called “Under the Silver Lake.” This Crumb-like comic tells tall tales about a mythological woman murdering men while wearing an owl mask, a failed silent film star who put a pox on the community, and a current connection to a dog killer running rampant in the area.
The second comes when Sam meets enigmatic new neighbor Sarah. The two take a mutual interest in one another, but their would-be romance ends as suddenly as it begins. Sarah vanishes without a trace in the middle of the night, leaving an empty apartment and confused Sam in her wake. Sam’s subsequent quest to uncover what happened to the shiny new object of his affection takes him down a twisty trail of trendy clubs, classic movies, distractions during casual sex, skunk spray, car-keying kid vandals, cereal box ciphers, magazine maps, moguls disguised as pirates, weirdos, beardos, and countless pensive ponderings.
Yes, “Under the Silver Lake” is every bit as eccentrically eclectic as it sounds. Except it’s not meant to be digested as a linearly logical movie. To dissect the movie’s substance using its tangible story misses the intangible bigger picture.
“Under the Silver Lake” should come with an “extreme polarization” warning, which it sort of inherently does since David Robert Mitchell directs under A24’s distribution banner. Cue the eye-rolling assaults certain to include words like “pretentious, hipster, millennial, edgelord, smug, narcissistic,” or whatever other terms du jour are fashionable among artistically superior armchair intellectuals.
You see, “Under the Silver Lake” is far more likely to be talked about in hot takes, lukewarm takes, contrarian takes, and lemming takes than in straight plot synopses. It’s a cocktail party conversation starter, which speaks to the reason why this “review” focuses on “this is what it’s like” generalizations instead of traditional critiques. I’m not the ideal guide for breaking through the movie’s obliquely interpretive material. I’d rather draft a vague map for people to route what they’re getting into while gauging how likely they are to connect with the film’s cynical commentary.
My objectivity also becomes compromised by the fact that I’ve been a Silver Lake resident since 2016. Whether that’s long enough or too short of a time, from where I’m standing, David Robert Mitchell nails the tone of the town. The novelty layer of “I know that bar/place/street” obviously only appeals to several thousand people. Beyond that though, “Under the Silver Lake” smartly skewers the absurdity of secret shows, chic social scenes, and inflated cults of personality through savvy metaphors for stalking, surveillance, celebrity, and complacency. Self-aware parody remains in play even when the movie appears to obliviously celebrate the elevated ennui of connected media culture mixed with gumshoe drama against a backdrop of vintage Hollywood glamour.
From an early “Magnolia” moment when a squirrel drops from the sky to die on a concrete sidewalk like a wounded Normandy Beach soldier, you know “Under the Silver Lake” fearlessly aims to be unconventionally appealing. It succeeds through the power of personable performances, particularly Andrew Garfield’s, whose plentiful tics of affability stall Sam’s meandering malaise before it can fully seize readily available opportunities to become wholly off-putting.
I won’t argue against anyone staking an annoyed claim that David Robert Mitchell knowingly trolls wannabe cinephiles who hailed him as a wunderkind by presenting a nonsensical stream of consciousness as artful entertainment. Maybe he does. Yet whenever I reflect on the unusual appeal of its mesmeric allure, the more I appreciate “Under the Silver Lake” as a unique travelogue through a weird waking dreamscape.
Perhaps the preceding words hold little value as an insightful evaluation of the movie’s merits. I may not have the movie’s cryptic messages solved either, assuming they aren’t in fact deviously devised goose chases. At the very least I can confirm that I was excited to write about “Under the Silver Lake” at a time when the monotony of many movies has routinely bored me with run of the mill repetition.
The strange nature of the film ensures viewers are certain to exit at different destinations. But the jolting, jocund jaunt to get there is just as certain to guarantee an unforgettable trip through L.A.’s underbelly of off-centered oddness.
Review Score: 80