Under the Silver Lake (2018)
What are they hiding?
Following on from his acclaimed allegorical horror film It Follows (2014), writer and director David Robert Mitchell leaves it all out on the field with the elliptical, ambitious, and more than a little self-indulgent neo-noir Under the Silver Lake.
We don’t get Raymond Chandler’s Phil Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as our hero in Mitchell’s sun-scarred modern take, though — our investigative lead is the rather skeevy Sam (Andrew Garfield), a directionless low-key conspiracy theorist who takes an interest when his attractive neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), and her flatmates disappear overnight, seemingly skipping out on their apartment lease. Sam doesn’t buy it, however, and starts digging in deeper. His investigations take him up the ziggurat of Los Angelino society and into the dark and nebulous webs of coincidence and conspiracy that underpin the waking world.
And that’s your lot, really — one guy, who we are assured on several occasions smells bad — but still manages to have frequent, lackluster sex with a surprising number of attractive women (Riki Lindhome, for instance) — working his way through a labyrinth of clues to arrive at a conclusion that doesn’t exactly seem worth the investment of time and attention it’s taken to get here (the film clocks in at an ungainly 139 minutes). Classical structure and emotional engagement are willfully avoided — this is not a movie for those viewers who need their plot points heavily signposted.
Under the Silver Lake is part of a continuum of metaphysical noir, of course. There’s Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), if not the first then certainly the most important early work to piece the border of the traditional genre to venture into wilder and more conceptually ambitious territory. There’s Alex Cox’s immortal Repo Man (1984), the Coens’ cult fave The Big Lebowski (1998), Richard Kelly’s insanely audacious Southland Tales (2006), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderfully arch Inherent Vice (2014). Like those films, Under the Silver Lake trades on nostalgia for both Golden Age Hollywood and counterculture rebellion (specifically, Sam venerates Kurt Cobain), but plants its narrative flag in the ruins of greatness. Our hero is a fallen man, and this is a fallen world, and our quest is really to try and discover why the world is so f*cked up.
Ambitious intent, no? That Under the Silver Lake can’t quite grasp what it’s reaching for is somewhat forgivable — at least it’s swinging for the fences. And there are moments of inspired fabulation to be found strung along its loosey-goosey, winding plot — the scene where Sam confronts a man (Jeremy Bobb) who claims to have written every single popular song of the modern era is a delightfully cynical showstopper, mercilessly skewering both Sam’s pop culture obsessions and, by extension, our own.
But each moment of brilliance is bedded in acres of self-indulgent meandering. A tight, clipped plot is not a necessary ingredient, but if you want us to just kind of hang out in your cinematic world and with your characters then, by god, they better be worth our patience. Under the Silver Lake manages this about half the time; endless film culture nods and pop-art artifacts will only carry you so far, and at some point, we need to be invested not just in what’s happening, but who it’s happening to. Like Jeffrey Lebowski, Sam is a fairly passive and somewhat opaque protagonist, only reluctantly roused to action and notably ineffectual when the chips are down. That’s a potentially fun reversal of the noir norm with its grit-teeth tough guy protagonists but, without throwing undue aspersions at the normally quite watchable Garfield, we have met Jeffrey Lebowski and you, sir, are not Jeffrey Lebowski. Whatever qualities are required to garner our sympathies, Sam doesn’t have them (and if you do find yourself identifying with him, for Christ’s sake, sort your life out).
Under the Silver Lake isn’t a complete misfire, but it’s certainly less than the sum of its parts. If you’re on board for this kind of slipshod, meandering cryptic caper, it’s certainly watchable, but as noted, the films that it is heir to are much more so. Maybe it’s time to dust off Repo Man one more time instead?
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson