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Film Review: Under the Silver Lake (2019)

Demanding Neo Noir is Guaranteed to Divide Audiences

“There’s nothing to solve, you know. It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” When a beautiful young party-goer utters these words in Under the Silver Lake, the new film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell, you can almost hear the filmmaker snicker. It’s not just advice dispensed by a supporting player to the film’s protagonist. It’s also a warning to the audience: Don’t expect all your questions to be answered. Don’t waste your time trying to figure everything out. And that’s good advice when it comes to tackling this sophomore effort from Mitchell who gave audiences a much more straightforward debut with the 2014 horror hit It Follows.

The premise of Under the Silver Lake is simple enough. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a stoner with no job and lives on the verge of eviction. One day he’s sitting on the balcony of his apartment and spots a gorgeous bikini-clad neighbor named Sarah (Riley Keough). The two spend some time together … and then she disappears without a trace. Every piece of furniture and Sarah herself are gone by morning. Sam is convinced something nefarious has happened, but everyone from the apartment manager to law enforcement thinks that Sam has gotten high one time too many. Even the audience begins to wonder if she was simply a figment of Sam’s drugged out imagination.

By choosing a drug-addled loser as his lead character, David Robert Mitchell gives the audience the most unreliable of narrators. Sam voluntarily ingests drugs daily, and in one instance, accidentally consumes a large amount of a hallucinogen. So the audience is continually wondering what is real and what is imagined. This approach either adds to the fun or becomes increasingly frustrating. (For me, it was the former.)

Sam spends his days sitting on his sofa, playing video games and smoking pot like a stoned Peter Pan who refuses to grow up. He pretends to be employed and lies whenever he feels it’s necessary. During his phone calls with his mom, he sounds like a little boy who needs someone to cut the crust off his PB&J. But, there’s a dark side to Sam, and we see that he’s capable of explosive violence, a savagery that springs out of his inebriation. (Word to the wise: Don’t vandalize Sam’s car.) This duality keeps the audience off balance. Sam is as much a mystery as the circumstances he finds himself in.

Sam’s world is also filled with incomprehensible anachronisms that add to the confusion/mystery. He uses a VCR and his mother mentions “taping” movies for him. Sam has casual sex with a young woman who mentions the deaths of people they “grew up with”, but then refers to Johnny Carson and Elizabeth Taylor, celebrities who died ten to twenty years ago. Even Sam’s pornography is decidedly analog, consisting of old Playboy magazines and lingerie ads from catalogs. Sam is stunted, incapable of moving forward with his life, so his surroundings are also trapped in another time.

Under the Silver Lake is a riff on the private detective genre, a neo-noir set in (present day?) Los Angeles. On the continuum of crime film deconstructions, this film falls somewhere between Rian Johnson’s 2005 masterpiece Brick and Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 oddity Inherent Vice. Mulholland Drive is clearly an influence, but this film never approaches those lofty heights although the narrative does have a Lynchian dream logic to it. Just don’t expect very much actual logic.

When it comes to channeling his influences, the director/screenwriter could use a dose of subtlety. When Sam finishes spying on his neighbors with binoculars, he sits on his sofa … under a poster for Rear Window. During a movie night in a local L.A. cemetery, a group of young people being tailed by Sam disburse, revealing a tombstone that says HITCHCOCK. It’s as if the young filmmaker is just begging someone to refer to his film as “Hitchcockian”.

In addition to these little inside jokes (that often are far too broad), Mitchell has a few moments when his characters give voice to some of the themes of the film. Sam discusses the way that corporations are mainstreaming entertainment and beaming out content for mass consumption with the end product being dumbed down and bland. The implication being that Under the Silver Lake is a notch above such entertainment and occupies its own little niche of originality.

This film could likely be used by psychiatrists and psychologists as a kind of personality test. Are you someone who can simply enjoy the journey? Or is the destination more important to you? If you’re an OCD type, and you prefer a crime procedural that provides definite answers along the way, then you may find Under the Silver Lake to be nothing short of exasperating. If you can simply drift along like Sam, and resist the urge to “solve” the film, then this may be a breath of fresh air.

Even at two hours and fifteen minutes, the film still zips along, and I was never anything less than entertained. I look forward to seeing it again, so I can pick up on details that I overlooked on first viewing. I have no desire to figure it out. I just want to better understand the journey it offers its audience.

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