Under the Silver Lake steals Tarantino‘s guiding philosophy that homage can be original and sprints home with it, tossing classic Hollywood into a blender with David Lynch and smashing whichever button makes the biggest mess. And the resulting cocktail is certainly creative, a film that insists on its dryly absurdist sense of humor as much as the subtlety of an electric guitar to the face.
David Robert Mitchell’s first film after his 2014 horror masterpiece It Follows may not be quite as cogent a product, but its unhinged ambition is impossible not to admire. The film has the attitude of a week-long bender with Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Drive, and it’s every bit as bizarrely entertaining as that sounds. If nothing else, Under the Silver Lake is fun. After hours of Cannes‘ grounded dramas and tragedies, which are fantastic in their own right, it was a refreshing change of pace to just sit back, let the movie magic kick in, and watch a trippy nonsensical odyssey.
Andrew Garfield disappears into his role as Sam, a model 20-something specimen of California laziness, a stoner who spends his time spying on his neighbors and devoting way too much brain power to outlandish conspiracy theories. After his attractive new neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) up and vanishes, Sam embarks on an increasingly surreal trek into the hedonistic underbelly of Los Angeles to discover what exactly happened to her. It’s not like he has anything better to do with his time, anyway.
At some point in the film, after Sam has drifted long enough from party to party, we somehow arrive at searching for hidden clues in popular entertainment, inspired largely by the classic notion of playing a record backwards to hear evil messages. The whole ordeal doesn’t make sense thinking back on it, but Under the Silver Lake is like that: it’s a dream, and at one point in a dream you start doing something because it just subconsciously feels like the right thing to do. If that sounds like Lynch, it’s because the film’s dreamlike aesthetic is an awful lot like Lynch.
At the foot of this Lynch altar are the random Mulholland Drive-esque plotlines that lead nowhere; in just 140 minutes, there’s a serial dog killer, a fully-nude, knife-wielding owl woman, a homeless dude with a crown, lots of LA skunks, a random pirate, and much, much more. These plotlines are introduced, they’re briefly considered, and then almost immediately forgotten for the next absurdity to catch the story’s fancy. Anyone with a passing familiarity with surrealist filmmakers will note that this style of narrative organization isn’t Mitchell’s own, but it’s a noble tribute nonetheless and a blast to watch unfold.
It Follows would not be half the film it is if not for its thematic depth and ambiguity, and Under the Silver Lake only dives deeper and more enigmatically into that same dark body of water. At the forefront of the film is the dissonance between the idyllic city image and its true self lying underneath (another common Lynch trope). The further Sam travels on his mysterious quest, the more complicated the puzzle becomes, and the less it seems to hold any semblance of rhyme or reason. In the end the film does offer an answer to its central mystery, but this turns out to be even more baffling than the question.
There is a message though- underneath all the nonsensicality is a parable about our society’s endless obsession and reliance on pop culture and entertainment. There’s a particularly memorable scene in a mansion where the film seems to suggest that we attach our own meanings to what is truthfully a meaningless corporate commodity. Mitchell concludes with an appropriately ludicrous allegory demonstrating that it is completely our own choice to imprison ourselves with this vapid entertainment because we, like Sam, have nothing better to do- we willingly enslave ourselves to mindlessness to cope with our own pointless existences. In the age of social media, endless Marvel sequels, and an ostensibly infinite supply of Netflix binges, that’s quite a stinging and nihilistic damnation, but not one without its fair share of sincerity.
Under the Silver Lake may be a little too unwieldy and ambitious a film for many, but it works far too often to be denied as a success. It’s obvious that this is a passion project for David Robert Mitchell, one that he surely sunk much time and love into. Maybe it is a weaker film than It Follows, but it packs enough epic scale into its quest to lend emotional satisfaction to its ending. Walking into this as blind as possible is surely the optimal manner of viewing, but the trailer actually reveals surprisingly little of the film it claims to advertise. Under the Silver Lake will almost certainly not be on everyone’s wavelength, but it does cement David Robert Mitchell’s role as a rising indie star to keep an eager eye on.