Under the Silver Lake Review
Fans of director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows have been waiting patiently since 2014. Now its finally arrived, Under the Silver Lake will probably see him lose half the audience he gained with the success of his indie-horror classic. But it's a wildly inventive and clever piece of filmmaking that will hopefully gain the respect of an entirely new group of fans. There is nothing straightforward about Mitchell's nostalgia-tinged tribute to classic Hollywood that evokes the mind-fuckery of David Lynch.
The road to release has been far from easy, after the film first appeared at Cannes last year to a less than rapturous response. There were rumours Mitchell was going to re-cut it (he didn’t) and the release date moved from June to December, until A24 finally found the current slot. Watching the film you can see why it proved so difficult to find the right moment to let it loose on the public. The complicated narrative takes any number of paranoid detours along the way, and it is testament to Andrew Garfield’s magnetic performance and Mitchell’s confident direction that it manages to hang together so well.
While the trailer suggested comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, they mostly only work on a surface level and can be quickly dismissed. Those parallels were drawn because of Garfield’s character Sam, an aimless 30-something nerd who lives on the eastside of Los Angeles and spends most days doing very little at all. He has no job and even less ambition, and is about to be evicted from his apartment. Not that he seems bothered by it, as Sam is the type of character that always manages to get by, even though explaining how would be impossible.
For all of Sam’s scruffiness and unappealing qualities, he has no problem winning the affections of attractive women. When he’s not leering at their figures from behind, or ogling his older topless neighbour, he becomes besotted by an attractive newcomer to his complex called Sarah (Riley Keough). But as soon as he gets close to her she disappears, and despite their brief time together Sam is determined to find out where she has gone.
From that moment it’s down the rabbit hole we go with Sam, as he sets off on an increasingly weird and mysterious adventure across the City of Dreams. Mitchell pitches us into the full-on weirdness of a Los Angeles filled with drugs, violence, money, conspiracy theories, cults, underground societies, odd-ball characters, an incomprehensible parrot - and there’s also a dog killer on the loose. Sam bumbles along from one event to the next, somehow finding his way towards the end of his journey.
He’s a pretty unlikeable character but Garfield gives him just enough playfulness to negate the selfish side of his personality. Mitchell's script places us into the entitled viewpoint of a boy who has never grown up. Mostly because he’s never had to; his objectification of women and disposable attitude to others a symptom of his nerdy self-obsessiveness. The narrative is a wonderfully realised meta-commentary on Hollywood and its worst indulgences, while admitting it’s an abusive relationship its residents never really want to leave. Deep down they know it's rotten to the core, but those bright lights always shine so powerfully.
Under the Silver Lake also sees Mitchell once again working with composer Disasterpiece, whose score fluidly shifts between menacing paranoia and Bernard Herrmann-esque flourishes. Retro movie posters hang in Sam’s apartment, while the presence of a James Dean bust and a gravestone bearing Hitchcock’s name offer a wistful towards look back to Hollywood's past. Even the Silver Lake setting was once home to Mack Sennett Studios: a silent movie maestro who worked with Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Gloria Swanson to name a few.
Mitchell’s film is filled with equal affection and disillusionment about a town that chews people up, digests their souls and hurls them out the other end when it’s done. If ever there was a way to break free of the expectations of delivering another horror film in the vein of It Follows, then this is certainly it. There's no holding back from Mitchell who delivers a cult classic that will offer rewards for years to come.
Under the Silver Lake opens in UK cinemas and on MUBI from March 15th.