“Under the Silver Lake” is a proper beast, a never-less-than-ambitious pop-occult hallucination.
Andrew Garfield plays Sam, a tow-headed thirty-three-year-old boy of a man, teetering on multiple edges, a partaker of the apocalyptic toxic, a seeker with a precious nightmare vision of Los Angeles entire, bursting with stubborn dream logic, unmoored within the relentless fantasia of weather without season, sensation without ardor. As within the city itself, the colors are vivid and relentless. (Credit cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and the design crew.) The settings, from high wealth, to low lodgings, capture the interior life of Los Angeles, literally.
Sam’s search for a missing woman he’d only just met (Riley Keough) sets him on his quests, along with the discovery of a ‘zine called “Under the Silver Lake” in a bookshop, where he finds cryptic leads to follow.
The alternately sparkling and bruised result is a detective story that is also an onrushing compendium of and commentary on the detective story genre that Los Angeles rewards so richly. (Nouveau neo-noir, if you must.) There are surfaces upon surfaces and reflections of surfaces and Sam seeks what must lie beneath. And the play of the pop culture of the past is indelibly embedded in actions at every turn. As the deeply mordant Oscar Levant observed, “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood, and you will find the real tinsel underneath.”
Directly after the Cannes 2018 premiere of this third venture from writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover” , “It Follows” ), screenwriter Larry Gross slotted the untamed opus into a bristling “Apocalyptic L.A.” genre, alongside “Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Long Goodbye,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Southland Tales” and “Inherent Vice.” Plus, a tincture of “Chinatown,” and a taste of “Repo Man” if it had arisen in the brain of Brian De Palma instead of Alex Cox.
This particular artifact of satire and sincerity is sweetly, berserkly baroque, even rococo, with layers and layers of cults and cultish gestures and cult-like devotion, cast from the confusions of an artistic young man’s mind and told within his damaged perspective. There is investigation, in the David Lynch sense, hallucination in plain sight, in the Richard Kelly sense, and Pynchon by at least the soupçon in support of puzzles for puzzling’s sake. The songs on the soundtrack are obstinately of no particular time—sunny Los Angeles, a soundtrack every day, that plays and pours and persists, diffident at a casual listen but wildly suggestive.
“Under the Silver Lake” appealed to Garfield as a chance to play a “West Coast slacker Travis Bickle.” “He thinks he’s going to save womankind from the clutches of patriarchal toxic masculine Hollywood,” Garfield has said. Mitchell, who says the film came from equal parts love and hate for Los Angeles, told The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Olsen that he doesn’t want “to suggest something is less real than something else. I wouldn’t want to break it down that way. It does an injustice to the movie to some degree. [But] this is the way he is experiencing it, the way he feels about it. From the first frame to the end. If that helps… The film is poking at these questions, these feelings. It’s absolutely what the movie is about. He is objectifying women. There may be some feelings of misogyny, and that’s a real part of it. It’s not like Sam is just the hero. And I don’t mean he is just the villain, either. It’s a very layered thing.” With Topher Grace, Zosia Mamet, Jimmi Simpson, Luke Baines, Sydney Sweeney. 139m. (Ray Pride)
“Under The Silver Lake” is on demand.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.