Travis Leamons // Film Critic
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
Movie Grade: B+
The phrase “instant cult classic” is very disconcerting. Its utterance or appearance in reviews already gives a strong impression that a movie will fail from the very start. But when a distributor acquires a property that proves difficult to market to major audiences, it’ll likely cut bait and move on to something else. That’s what A24 did with David Robert Mitchell’s UNDER SILVER LAKE, a film well deserving of cult status.
After the success of IT FOLLOWS, Mitchell went to work on crafting a disorienting vision of East Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to make a noir piece set in the City of Angels, but he didn’t want to replicate the antiheroes and femme fatales closely associated with the style, nor have our protagonist stroll into The Prince restaurant as if he were JJ Gittes in CHINATOWN. Instead, Mitchell goes full MacGuffin with a story that zigs and zags, meanders, and feels like it’ll never end.
In short, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is a shaggy dog story that falls into a giant barrel of red herrings. It’s something the general public will not understand. It’s also understandable how A24 (a distributor known for supporting ambitious projects outside the norm) would be flummoxed with trying to sell a two-hour-plus movie starring an out of work webslinger now layabout conspiracy nut obsessed with numbers, symbology, and the glances Vanna White makes on WHEEL OF FORTUNE.
Andrew Garfield is Sam. Down and out and nearing eviction from his Silver Lake apartment. Sam spends his days on his patio terrace smoking and drinking, and spying on his neighbors. One day a bubbly blonde with a fluffy white dog catches his eye. Sarah’s her name (and she’s played by Riley Keough). She’s got the kind of smile that can evaporate the smog over Los Angeles or send Sam straight to purgatory. Such is the case in noir.
Dolls, molls, and desperation… What should have been a sweet, meet-cute encounter for a romantic comedy, alas love does not follow — only longing. The next day Sarah has moved out and is gone without a trace. Thus, begins the first stage of Sam’s epic quest. Frodo had Samwise and a complete fellowship. Sam has no entourage. He’s just a resident Angeleno that goes looking for Sarah and stumbles into a world where his obsession with codes hidden in plain sight might unlock an even bigger mystery.
Or, filmmaker David Robert Mitchell could be toying with expectations by producing an existential neo-noir bursting with so many ideas that it may be too overwhelming for most. We perceive Sam as a jobless slacker with an eclectic taste – noticeable in the film posters that hang on his walls and the short-sleeve shirts he wears. He is a man of multitudes, much like Mitchell’s latest with its obvious nods to other great filmmakers. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE feels like he’s making a cinematic love letter to Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO.
Hitchcock popularized the use of the MacGuffin – and in my estimation, Mitchell becomes a “Super MacGuffin Bro” (that phrase will make sense once one of the clues is revealed, trust me) with everything he includes: subliminal messages in pop songs; a missing billionaire; Sam’s apparent friends-with-benefits acquaintance who mysteriously exits after a few scenes and is never mentioned again; his mother’s appreciation for actress Janet Gaynor and her film 7th HEAVEN (coincidentally remade a decade later with James Stewart, a frequent Hitchcock collaborator, as the male protagonist); chess parties; and the subtle irony that a serial dog killer is lurking in the shadows of a shaggy dog story.
The more breadcrumbs Sam follows, the more confounding the film becomes. By the time it gets too late to stop, I was so reeled in by its labyrinth mystery, the Macguffins, the red herrings, and the naivete we have with pop culture that I had to continue. Every strange trip or detour, every new clue, I was hooked. If at one point, Sam’s last name was revealed to be Marlowe and that he had a father or grandfather named Philip living in San Francisco, I would have said, “Sure, why not?”
Hopping from coming-of-age drama (THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER) to horror to now noir, David Robert Mitchell can’t be pigeonholed as a certain type of director. He’s a genre guy, no question. But without the success of IT FOLLOWS, he probably wouldn’t have been this ambitious. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE pushes the limits of self-indulgence. Mitchell steps into the batter’s box and calls his shot as if he were Babe Ruth. He swings for the fences like a man on a mission, crafting an East L.A. hipster’s version of Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE, a novel rampant with pop culture references that was later made into a film by Steven Spielberg.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE may have been unceremoniously dumped into a few theaters and VOD this past April, but a cult following has already started to form and will only continue to grow as the years go by. Watching it once isn’t enough.
Considering how the film was treated upon release, my tongue was firmly in cheek when a copy of the home video release was delivered. I opened the package and it was a DVD. Not a Blu-ray, a DVD. Feeling sort of nostalgic to the days when I would obsess over new releases on DVD, I thought this was A24 being cheeky. Alas, just a matter of supply on hand.
Extras Grade: C+
In any event, the disc comes with two featurettes.
“What Lies Under the Silver Lake” has production designer Michael T. Perry guide us through some of the settings used during filming. A nice touch is having color swatches pop up on the bottom of the screen as a reference guide to show how Perry plays with furniture, fabrics, and wall color to tie everything together (Jeff Lebowski would approve).
In “Beautiful Specter,” Disasterpeace (stage name for Richard Vreeland) overviews the music of the film. Having given us earworms with his score for IT FOLLOWS, this time Vreeland goes heavy on the Bernard Hermann. That’s to be expected when Mitchell told him to watch the films CITIZEN KANE, VERTIGO, and TAXI DRIVER (all scored by Hermann) along with BLUE VELVET to get an idea of the tone he was looking to achieve in the music arena.
Both featurettes are nice compliments to a movie that may not have been easy to sell but sticks with you like gum.