Releasing a follow up to a box office hit is tough. Similarly to Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s ill-fated follow up to his iconic Donnie Darko, David Robert Mitchell’s latest film could not be further from the detached horror of his critically acclaimed horror It Follows, and it’s proven to be a polarizing film. Critics have either praised it’s audacity, or attacked it’s self-conscious weirdness.
Newly released on DVD & Blu-Ray, Under The Silver Lake is a surreal shaggy dog story. The film is essentially a Chandleresque private eye thriller injected with an assortment of quirky characters and a disorienting atmosphere. It’s reminiscent of an eclectic mix of films, from Inherent Vice and Brick to Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. Mitchell was clearly influenced by Mulholland Drive, and while he successfully captures the surreal elements and dry sense of humour, he never quite masters the nightmarish, unnerving tone of Lynch’s film.
Andrew Garfield plays Sam, a conspiracy obsessive who lives near the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. When his neighbour (Riley Keough) and erstwhile crush vanishes, Sam becomes obsessed with her disappearance, and embarks on a labyrinthine path of debauchery and drug-fuelled parties to find her. In doing so he uncovers some deeply disturbing and bizarre secrets of the Hollywood elite.
Garfield makes for a surprisingly down-to-earth lead. Sam is immediately unlike any of his more wholesome roles, just the right side of sleazy. He pervs on his neighbours, punches a child in the face, and wanders around his apartment in socks and no pants, the universal sign of a scumbag. He has the unlikely ability (as with many gumshoe protagonists) of attracting a series of beautiful women, and it says a lot of his performance that this never feels contrived. It speaks well of Garfield that he remains likeable throughout, giving a performance that is hapless, tragic and very funny.
Riley Keough is enigmatic as the girl at the centre of the mystery, and it’s both weird and completely understandable that Sam would drop everything to track down this girl he’s just met. The rest of the cast are largely relegated to cameo roles, with only a few sticking in the memory. The most memorable of these is Jeremy Bobb as an ancient songwriter, supposedly responsible for every song ever written. This last scene in particular is funny, bizarre and brilliant in equal measure. It builds momentum dramatically and is a great standalone set-piece, albeit absolutely mad.
I’m not surprised that this film has baffled some audiences, as there’s an awful lot going on. It’s a deconstructive, absurdist look at Hollywood’s seedy underbelly. The agency of aspiring actresses who double as call girls feels like a dark reflection of La La Land, and there are numerous scenes showing how the system exploits wide eyed young actresses looking for their big break. The satire here is on-the-nose but effective, and helped by the bright lighting and beautiful widescreen cinematography, which itself recalls the golden era of Hollywood films.
The film pays homage to classic Hollywood throughout, referencing films such as Rear Window, The Big Sleep and How To Marry A Millionaire. Keough herself is even made to look like Marilyn Monroe in her final, unfinished film Something’s Got To Give. The sweeping orchestral score by Disasterpeace emulates Bernard Hermann’s classic film scores, lending the film a dramatic, disconcerting quality. This classicism is contrasted with some very odd experimental choices though. Some of these work, while others, like Sam hearing dogs barking when girls shout at him rather than their voices, feel mannered and overly self conscious.
While for the most part this is a film where the journey is more interesting than the destination, the resolution does tie up many of the loose ends. It walks a very fine line all the way through, balancing multiple genres; satire, comedy and a compelling conspiracy thriller, and tonally it pretty much succeeds in all areas. The overall effect is of something traditional but subversive; it’s absurd, but also manages to make a decent emotional impact, with Garfield really poignant in the final scenes.
Often funny, and frequently jarring, Under The Silver Lake is not for everyone but remains an ambitious, unique film. It’s a shame that the studio seems to have tried to sweep it under the carpet because it’s a lot more interesting than people give it credit for. While frustratingly self-aware in places, and bordering on smug in others, it’s certainly worth a look.