Under the Silver Lake, the third feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, is the kind of ambitious, self-indulgent project destined to appeal only to a small, but fervent group of fans—a prefab cult classic, in other words. Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an aimless slacker who spends most his days smoking, reading comics, and spying on his (female) neighbors, Rear Window-style. But when a gorgeous new tenant (Riley Keough) suddenly disappears, he goes on a demented, monomaniacal search for her across the City of Angels. Mitchell’s film falls squarely in the territory of American detective fiction—specifically, the hazy Los Angeles noirs of Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice).
But one might also do well to consider it alongside something as stylistically and tonally distinct as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Like that film, Under the Silver Lake offers a grim, though superficially “playful” assessment of the contemporary pop culture condition, surveying a media landscape where all art is commodified; it seems to exist mainly for the purposes of soulless, subreddit dissection. Through Garfield’s paranoid conspiracy theorist, the viewer becomes drawn deeper into a Pynchonesque odyssey that’s meant to be as pointless as it is intoxicating. But unlike one Brian De Palma, Mitchell is largely unwilling to offer the viewer the participatory (often scopophilic) pleasures of Sam’s quest. All too aware of the toxic qualities of his protagonist (not to mention those of the subculture he exemplifies), Mitchell continually presents the film’s comically surreal proceedings at a slightly judgmental remove. For all the talk of its “divisive” nature—the film was roundly panned upon its premiere at Cannes last year—Under the Silver Lake neither challenges nor discomfits. It is, ostensibly, a swing-for-the-fences effort that just ultimately doesn’t risk much at all.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 4.