As a form of flattery, homages are even trickier to execute than imitations. Writer-director-producer David Robert Mitchell, who revolutionized the modern horror genre with his 2014 feature It Follows, was ambitious to the point of rashness with his neo-noir mystery Under the Silver Lake, which glimmers with nods to many noirs past: the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice — plus Vertigo… and Rear Window… and Richard Kelly’s post-Donnie Darko incoherent slog of a feature Southland Tales. In theory, these individual ingredients — a little Lynch-inspired outlandishness, a smidgen of several neo-noirs, all lacquered over with a mood that feels distinctly Hitchcockian — come together, mingle and melt together and simmer under a smart script, and make something delicious. In practice, though, it’s a hit or miss: filmmakers either take the best of their muses and turn out a crowd-pleasing product, or burn the whole thing black. With Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell didn’t completely ruin his recipe, but he didn’t craft anything that would end up on Bon Appétit.
Andrew Garfield is the saving grace of Under the Silver Lake, which is ironic considering the man he plays — the bedraggled sort-of-bum Sam, who slacks off and passes time sipping beers, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and playing Peeping Tom on the neighbors of his apartment in Silver Lake, Los Angeles — couldn’t save anything except dirty clothes in a laundry hamper for weeks on end. Stoner Sam has stopped paying rent and is less than a week away from eviction, but a slice of brightness soon breaks through that bleak reality. It comes in the form of a woman named Sarah (a wonderful Riley Keough), a blonde, bikini-clad stunner who has Sam at hello. They flirt and get high and carry on a conversation laced with innuendo and physical touch — and then Sarah slips away on the promise of a second meeting. When tomorrow comes, a repeat encounter is an impossibility, as Sarah has completely vanished. There’s no trace of her to be found — her apartment has been stripped of all her belongings overnight — and Sam simply wants to know why.
With no apparent concern over the fact that he’ll soon be kicked out of his apartment with nowhere else to go, Sam makes it his mission to track down Sarah. The very little he has to root his amatuer investigation in — a strange shoebox Sarah left behind that a henchwoman called Troy (Zosia Mamet) retrieves from her abandoned abode, a geometric design etched out on Sarah’s wall, and the underground ‘zine Under the Silver Lake — forms a springboard that launches Sam into the belief that Sarah has died, and that there’s a sinister stratagem soaking the streets of L.A. He digs for substance in places and things increasingly strange in nature: cereal boxes, old songs, a Legend of Zelda map tucked inside the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, grease-stained pizza boxes, the mind of conspiracy theory enthusiast Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler), a Fender Mustang and the memory of Kurt Cobain, a mystical woman called the Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten) and a puppet-string-pulling mastermind known only as the Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb). There’s also talking parrots and owl masks, showy mansion parties, California landmarks, a subliminal message-obsessed band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, animal abusers and assassins, an underground bunker accessible with the help of the Burger King crown-wearing “Homeless King” (David Yow), hobgoblins, harlots and balloons and a billionaire named Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann).
If it sounds like headtrip marked with Illuminati-esque woo-woo and symbolism that probably amounts to nothing, that’s because it is. Under the Silver Lake starts out a fascinating dive into the slime of Hollywood, the greed and hunger for sex and desperation for power coming to light more and more as Mitchell’s vision of deceit and sordidity focuses. It also sketches out a something to say about sexism and misogyny in our modern world and the men who run it. But, sadly, at point along the way that can’t quite be pinpointed, everything crumbles, and Under the Silver Lake becomes too baffling to be enjoyed. Any promise that it had gets lost in a maze of disconnected sequences, flaccid storytelling, jarring transitions, and a near-suffocating sense of self-importance.
Garfield serves as something of a tether in all this wooziness, though his Sam is as smarmy as they come. He’s the sun around which the rest of the cast spins — and sometimes spins out. He both makes a mean impression in the madness and makes Under the Silver Lake watchable.
Where Mitchell soared with It Follows — pulling influence from David Cronenberg’s works and John Carpenter’s films, slasher flicks from the 1980s that taught everyone sex is the quickest way to guarantee death in a horror situation and creature features like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy — he sputters with Under the Silver Lake. An undoubtedly talented filmmaker unafraid to take big leaps and not look down as he falls, Mitchell still demonstrates his many flairs — his keen eye for style, his taste for head-turning-and-scratching trippiness, his soft spot for keeping steady a certain level of confusion in the audience — but gets overwhelmed by his ambitions. Under the Silver Lake feels after-Thanksgiving-dinner stuffed — with too many ideas that go on for too long and leave viewers with too little resolution. The film, a car crash of craziness that has already polarized critics and will split moviegoers in similar fashion, jumps down a rabbit hole that winds into the fatuous abyss, and drags all but Garfield with it.
For some, Under the Silver Lake will be a swirling phantasmagoria of film noir and the glossiness of Los Angeles at its most surreal and unattainable — a film that makes little sense and maybe isn’t meant to, one that just barely redeems its shortcomings through silky, seductive scenes that transport watchers to a whole new world. For others, the film will be a coreless, metaphor-packed hot mess that isn’t as clever as it thinks it is; a feature that lacks meaning despite throwing at us more codes and clues and conspiracy theories than all of Dan Brown’s books combined and enough bizarre buzzwords to make businessmen loosen their ties and Stefon Meyers pack an overnight bag; a Ready Player One for people who really, really like weed, voyeurism, and the idea that our government is run by lizards in human suits. For me? Under the Silver Lake falls somewhere in the middle: it’s visually stunning and has its moments of genuinely interesting satire on the kind of men Sam represents and a commentary on our pop-culture-obsessed society, but it ultimately buckles under the weight of everything it’s trying to do. Under the Silver Lake ends up a labyrinth with no exit point, an unsatisfying trek to a treasure that can never be found.