At this year’s Fantasia Festival in Montreal, we exited David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake to positive colleague reactions – but it’s not a feeling that we shared. Feelings of boredom, befuddlement and fading amusement kept us feeling restless throughout. As Inherent Vice enthusiasts, our pre-screening hopes were Skyscraper high. But after actually watching it, our excitement dropped quicker than King Kong falling off the Empire State Building. All things said Under The Silver Lake is a branded California stoner noir without much care paid to consistency , resulting in an outright forgettable two-hour-plus exploration into existential hysteria. As coherently forgetful as it is minutes – nay, hours (?) – too long.
So what’s it about? Protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is directionless. Sleep-walking his way through life, Sam passes time by partaking in sushi and sleeping with his attractive actress companion (Riki Lindhome) as way to fill his day. Not one to avoid a good hobby, Sam also spies on his mature all-natural neighbor who feeds her birds topless along with bikini hottie neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough). But one day, Sam begins to worry when neighbor Sarah rapidly vacates the cozy complex, despite his own looming eviction in five days if he doesn’t pay rent.
Instead of coming up with the necessary funds, he embarks on a spiritual quest to investigate where Sarah has gone off to. You know, a much better decision than figuring out his housing crisis or lack of employment – which is never addressed as Sam infiltrates the seediest reaches of L.A.’s most unassuming locales.
Truthfully, Under The Silver Lake is an ambitious examination of being swallowed by California’s most “plastic” circles and enduring each fake-ass punch until curled in the fetal position. Labeling David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows follow-up (sorry) a “passion project” is easy (even if we hate the term).
There are some spectacular satirical assessments of living the “L.A. lifestyle” and paying dearly for it, from pretentious pool parties (almost Malickian) to getting your Ford Mustang “American Vandaled” for no reason. What Andrew Garfield portrays is a work of internal frustration and human turmoil, even if the film’s demeanor is that of a detective who can’t even tie his or her own shoes. Analyzed in pieces? Scenes work…when not playing into Inherent Vice Lite wishes.
Disjointed Story Arcs Nail The “Stoner Noir” Vibe, But Come With A Price
Our biggest problem with the film, however, stems from chewing excess story fat. David Robert Mitchell displays an active mind that can’t be contained. This also means numerous deviations in the plot are unfollowed by characters, focus or continuity. Who cares about the often mentioned dog murderer who never plays a logistical part in freestyle mayhem?
What’s up with all the characters who render themselves unimportant (a commentary on being used and unappreciated, mind you)? Really, no follow-up on Sam cold-clocking two *young* hoodlums until one’s mouth is bloody (admittedly one of the film’s better scenes)? Under The Silver Lake is a two-hour-and-twenty-minute caper that could have done without a solid thirty minutes of mindless throwaway “shocks,” mainly because the film itself doesn’t care about certain advancements.
Sam is an ’80s transplant who lives to…well…dwell on the past. Which he does while chasing an underground mole person conspiracy and crushing realities about pop-culture phenomenons we hold so achingly close.
Nods to nostalgia culture are frequent and oddly out of place because we’re talking about a mostly-modern-day-set tale. Bless David Robert Mitchell for crafting cinema that incorporates Nintendo Power magazine, The Legend Of Zelda and numerous Mario references. Shame on David Robert Mitchell for assuming such throwback eye candy can carry a movie. Scene by scene – overt reference by overt reference – Sam digs back to a time when social media didn’t rule every aspect of progression. Life begins to imitate art. A Playboy magazine cover mirrors an attractive wealthy woman shot through the chest in a reservoir, for example. Secret maps appear on mouldy cereal boxes.
This all plays into Sam’s obsession with code-cracking and a loony-bin belief that hidden messages exist on every platform of media consumption, which sets up his curiosity over even the tiniest Wheel Of Fortune head nod.
David Robert Mitchell creates with such an open mind – which shouldn’t be questioned if you’ve seen It Follows – and multiple instances prove this. Mitchell once again plays with water in a way that spectacularly reminds of The Strangers: Prey At Night, stalks nighttime isolation with a Slenderman-esque vibe and hits on some brilliant quotes (“as common as tits and hamburgers,” a la one of Sam’s even more distracted “friends”).
There is some *brilliant* content here (band Jesus And The Brides Of Dracula aka Silversun Pickups), but also wonky green screen work, an inability to discern “needs” from “wants” on screen, and a lens that sometimes can be distractingly “gaze-y” even though intent is guided by the film’s own commentary (“butt shots” vs. how women are treated in Hollywood).
Dive-bombing squirrels, Kurt Cobain’s guitar slam, hobo codes, a cackling senior gentleman playing “Crazy Train” on a piano while he berates Sam for believing in pop culture as more than a paycheck for some crusty old kook – there are equal parts to Under The Silver Lake that we love and loathe. “Divisive” doesn’t even begin to describe how audiences will react…and sometimes that’s the best kind of film (if your tastes align).
What The Actual F%&@
Seriously, what the actual f#$&.
By the time Under The Silver Lake hit stride, we’d wholly checked out. For too long Sam stumbles his way through hookups and Topher Grace interactions to the point where we’d been begging for a rapid conclusion. What do we get? The cultish assurance that 401Ks and retirement plans are nothing but useless rewards and life’s “goals” represent nothing in afterlife realms. Life’s rat race is meaningless, it always will be, and nothing we do can be carried after “ascension” *so embrace the beauty we have around us.*
Does this penetrate new thematic levels or break proverbial ground? Hell no. Does Mitchell air his grievances about posh, holier-than-thou egomaniacs running systems while the lowest of us scamper around like lemmings without purpose or just cause? Yeah, so all is forgiven and…
NO, WE’RE NOT FINE. ALL THAT EXISTENTIAL DREAD YOU CAUSED IS KINDA STILL UP IN THE AIR WITH MULTIPLE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS TO BOOT AND A COY NO-ANSWER FINALE DOESN’T WINK LIKE IT SHOULD.
Some will indulge Under The Silver Lake and herald a new classic. Some will appreciate the Janet Gaynor nods and joke about Alfred Hitchcock’s grave (legacy ignored). The quest for Mr. Pirate is situationally bonkers, Andrew Garfield plays his beats as a witless junior sleuth should and not a dime of rent money is ever seen – but as a film, oh how tedious this extended YouTube webisode is. Inherent Vice sets the bar for recent stoner noirs (yes, we’re “those people”), and Under The Silver Lake so wants to snatch the crown. Humorously, haphazardly and without steady direction.
Even the most outrageous Hollywood stories need connective dedication paid in full, which isn’t David Robert Mitchell’s forte here. Know your story and deliver that first, then build out an onslaught of ridiculousness with each extended take only after plotlines are accounted for. A fatal flaw when not followed for art that wants to say nothing and everything at the same time.