Over the last year, ‘Under the Silver Lake’ has garnered a cult-like online following - a surprising feat given the film took literally months to see the light of day. The constant reshuffling of the film’s release piqued audience interest but, for some, didn’t lend itself to confidence that director David Robert Mitchell had been successfully able to follow up his previous masterpiece, the sex horror ‘It Follows’. Unfortunately, the most interesting thing about ‘Under the Silver Lake’ is its half-assed release.
Andrew Garfield (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ franchise) stars as Sam, a new class of cinematic voyeur for the 21st century. He passes his days in an unremarkable manner, smoking pot, following conspiracy theories in comics, and perving on his neighbour - that is, until a beautiful woman named Sarah (Riley Keough, ‘American Honey’) moves into his apartment complex. This isn’t just lust; his draw to her is magnetic. After a chaste night of bonding, Sam visits her apartment the next day, only to find that Sarah, her roommates and her belongings are gone. Maybe it’s his ever-growing paranoia about the world around him, or maybe it’s his attraction to her, but Sarah’s vanishing act sends Sam on a wild goose chase for answers through the streets of Los Angeles.
Sam’s search is misguided and aimless, a metaphor for the film itself. The sense that this film doesn’t want to be taken too seriously is apparent thanks to numerous jarring instances of outlandish musical cues or jokes (there’s a brief but brilliant scene where Garfield shakes off a Spider-Man comic stuck to his hand). As tempting as it is to say "Oh, what the hell" and go along with the film’s absurd wanderings, so much of the film feels simultaneously pretentious and soulless that it held me at arm’s length the entire time. A key ingredient to the mystery genre is actually giving the audience a reason to care in the first place, but ‘Under the Silver Lake’ doesn’t bother to give one beyond morbid curiosity to see how strange the film can go. The film doesn’t do itself any favours either with the run time of 140 minutes. Mitchell obviously wants to create a sprawling world full of hidden clues, symbols and intrigue, but when the story itself is so dull, it feels unjustified and excruciating.
There are small glimmers of hope that ‘Under the Silver Lake’ wants to scratch the surface of deeper ideas, and relevant themes of toxic masculinity and the male gaze in L.A. are the perfect setup for the film to do so. But before any of these themes can be explored or critiqued in any way that could give it meaning, the film decides to drop them dead in the water, preferring rather to bathe in its absurd humour. I don’t want to say this is a matter of style over substance, but the film works overtime to earn that label.
The film doesn’t bother to give a reason to care beyond morbid curiosity to see how strange the film can go.
The one saving grace is its smooth, foreboding cinematography, even if it’s not really showing us anything all too interesting. Mitchell wears his noir influences on his sleeve; films like ‘Rear Window’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’ are explicitly referenced, but this doesn’t work in ‘Under the Silver Lake’s' favour at all. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but not so much when paying homage to great films just makes the chasm of quality between them and this one even wider.
Much of ‘Under the Silver Lake’ feels like Mitchell wanted to throw as many left-field camera angles, score swells, and strange attempts at humour at a wall to see what would stick. Sadly, most of the time, the film doesn’t feel nearly as compelling as it wants to be. It mirrors Sam’s search for answers, delving into the tiniest details and coming up with not a lot of meaning at all. It’s even more disheartening, considering that ‘It Follows’ showed the world that Mitchell can masterfully create ambiguous dreamscapes. With ‘Under the Silver Lake’, his ambition is undeniable, but by the time the credits roll it just feels like a whole lot of treading water for no reason.