After Under the Silver Lake premiered to a divisive response, its wider release date has been pushed back twice, with both creating the narrative that: as a follow-up to acclaimed horror It Follows, David Robert Mitchell has created his own indulgent sophomoric slump like Zardoz or Southland Tales. Whilst that might make you expect a complete train-wreck, the result is stylish and ambitious but also a convoluted mess.
Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a young man living in a Los Angeles motel with no girlfriend, no job and nothing better to do. One day, he meets girl-next-door Sarah (Riley Keough) and hits it off with her. However, she goes missing the next day, seemingly having moved out. This leads Sam to go on a quest to find her and understand the meaning behind her disappearance, coming across several different people and a lot of secrets pertaining to songs, pop culture and Hollywood.
To say that Under the Silver Lake “goes places” is an understatement, as the film feels like going down a never-ending rabbit hole. On a plot level, there are so many threads that are picked up, put on hold and ended. Mitchell throws all his ideas into one story and the pileup becomes overwhelming. The central hook of the story is too weak to invest in and the film seems to lack a clear feeling of establishment and conclusion. The pacing in general is also too slow and as the story goes on it becomes a lot less engaging. The flawed plotting confirms to me that Mitchell is a good director but not a good writer, as It Follows’ various logic issues can attest to.
But the film is also so bizarre that it sometimes becomes charming, from one of the weirdest opening sequences I’ve seen in a while to a scene involving a piano that left an impression on me. On the occasion that the film includes something inspired, whether it be a fun set piece, an interesting piece of social commentary or a good monologue, the film works. Also, the final 30 minutes thankfully do offer a payoff to many of the mysteries, but the conclusion drags and includes an ending that is somewhere between perfect and limp.
The biggest disconnect comes in the main protagonist. Sam is a terrible character. Not only does his perverted and violent nature make him impossible to like or connect with, but I have no clue why he acts the way he does, what drives him and what his personality is. There are some hints thrown in, but they are far too vague to gain any substance. The only thing that salvages him is Andrew Garfield’s committed performance. He is so game for the many scenarios his character goes through that he makes them watchable. The other actors do a good job with the material they are given, but the screenplay never focuses on them enough. Riley Keough has nothing to do and neither do actors such as Jimmi Simpson or Topher Grace. Callie Hernandaz gets a part that seems like it is going to be important but then isn’t.
Do I understand the themes? Somewhat. Despite the awkward male gaze and general weak treatment of its female characters, I get that the film wants to make fun of male fantasies. I can also see the general point about secrets in the Hollywood industry and the old generation vs the new generation. I can even tell that a lot of this film is an allegory for capitalism and obsession. But overall, it does not feel like the script goes deep enough into these points to make an interesting statement. It’s a bunch of ideas with a Noir style holding it together.
What thankfully saves this film from being a total disaster is the brilliant direction. The cinematography is incredibly beautiful and creative, with lots of great camerawork. The musical score by Disasterpiece wears the classical cinema inspiration on its sleeve and creates a sense of intrigue that the narrative lacks. The soundtrack is also so perfect that I’ve been listening to the various songs ever since I saw it first. Is Under the Silver Lake a perfect example of style over substance? Probably.
Under the Silver Lake is baffling and frustrating in both a good way and a bad way. It is a diamond in the rough, clearly having a lot of parts that could work but lacking the execution to make it truly good. I have no clue whether I appreciated it or hated it, but I do feel like constantly coming back to it.