Sam, intelligent but without purpose, finds a mysterious woman swimming in his apartment’s pool one night. The next morning, she disappears. Sam sets off across LA to find her, and along the way he uncovers a conspiracy far more bizarre.
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace
Closed Captioning Available
The fog is thick in Under the Silver Lake—but it’s neither the funk of pot smoke (though there is some of that) nor bad weather. Rather, it’s the confusion located somewhere behind Andrew Garfield’s brow. His character, Sam, prowls the streets like a Scooby-less Shaggy in search of answers to a riddle he only half comprehends. Hypnotic, spiraling and deliriously high on its own supply of amateur-sleuth–movie references, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s deeply personal follow-up to his relentless meta-horror film It Follows vaults him into Big Lebowski territory, by way of several Lynchian side streets. It’s the kind of raggedy-ass thriller that only happens when a young filmmaker, emboldened by success, throws away discipline, hoping to summon the full, meandering spell of a paranoid nightmare. Don’t hold it against him.
We’re in Los Angeles, because of course we are. The secret-history-of-L.A. movie, burrowing under the city’s sunny haze to an underlying meanness, has a long and glorious history. Before it becomes Chinatown for millennials, Under the Silver Lake sets up Sam as just another sleepy guy in line at the coffee shop, the laid-back Cali-pop perfection of the Association’s “Never My Love” completing his morning mood. Someone is scrubbing away a piece of ominous graffiti on the storefront window (BEWARE THE DOG KILLER) but Sam, jobless, has more pressing concerns. There’s a frequently topless neighbor to spy on from across the courtyard—Sam’s a bit of a perv—and then his eye turns to Sarah (Riley Keough), a Hitchcock blonde in a white floppy hat who takes up residence by the pool. Shouldn’t a guy with so many movie posters know to avoid these women?
Driven by Sarah’s sudden disappearance and the fuck-it-all idleness that comes with a five-day eviction notice, Sam gets curious—and this is where Under the Silver Lake evolves into a stealth comedy. Rich Vreeland’s voluptuous orchestra score goes full Vertigo, brewing a menace that Mitchell consistently undercuts with banal, dopey details: Who is the mysterious pirate in blue jeans running across the lawn? What exactly happened to deceased “billionaire daredevil” Jefferson Sevence? (Fans of Thomas Pynchon, your movie has arrived.) And does Sam have any clothes that aren’t pajamas?
The locations—from a dusty hike up to Rebel Without a Cause’s Griffith Observatory to hipster gatherings on rooftops and at cemeteries—reveal Mitchell for the smitten L.A. transplant he must be. He’s snaking around to a deeper comment on generational drift, the kind that looks for hidden messages in video games and cereal-box maps. “We crave mystery because there’s none left,” mumbles one of Sam’s ding-a-ling friends, a line that’s underpinned by our hero’s OCD-plunge into scribbling lyrics on empty pizza boxes.
Some viewers will find flaws. A bitter monologue about the homeless is harsh and unnecessary, and occasionally Sam gets Mike Hammer-violent. And can a film that indicts everything from phony rock rebellion to the elitist schemes of the ultrarich ever end satisfactorily? Still, the ambition here is worth cherishing. Mitchell’s movie will either evaporate into nothingness or cohere into something you’ll want to hug for being so wonderfully weird.
-Joshua Rothkopf, TIME OUT