Review: Under the Silver Lake (2019)
Title: Under the Silver Lake
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Riki Lindhome, Grace Van Patten, Callie Hernandez, and Jimmi Simpson
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Bias: I tend to have more patience for inscrutable films than some.
In a Nutshell: Sam (Garfield) is a young man who's a bit adrift in life. No discernable job, months behind on his rent, a seemingly semi-regular hook-up relationship with an actress (Lindhome), and not much else going on. What he does seem vaguely consumed by is a voyeuristic preoccupation with two of the women who live in his building - an aging hippie who spends most of her time caring for her parrots while topless, and a beautiful young woman, Sarah, (Keough) who lives downstairs. After a slightly awkward meet cute that unexpectedly works out, Sarah disappears, leading Sam to put together the clues he finds at late-night LA parties, in inscrutable weird history underground comix, and anywhere else he can find them, in an effort to discover the truth about what happened to her.
The Critique: This is a film with a seemingly very specific audience. While Mitchell's debut, It Follows borrows stylistically from John Carpenter's Halloween while telling a fairly original horror story, Under the Silver Lake is almost a mash-up of a movie made for hardcore fans of Hitchcock, Lynch, Kubrick, and Polanski. It would be easy (and not all that unfair) to dismiss the film on that level. There's a certain hollowness to the direction and structure of the movie that doesn't really build on to or add anything that you don't get from those other filmmakers, which is a shame. It's perfectly fine to mimic Rear Window or Blue Velvet, but at the end of the day I'm much more likely to rewatch either of those than pressing play on this one.
But, for me, there's something strangely fascinating, and arguably intentional, about what Mitchell's doing. Without getting too far into spoilers, the journey Sam goes on through the simultaneously glitzy and seedy underbelly of Hollywood is all about a pop culture that recycles and consumes the same ideas over and over again while pretending it's doing something new. We burn through music icons, commercial jingles, religion, history, and celebrities with abandon, simultaneously elevating them to mythic status while discarding them for the next "new" thing. And in Hollywood, and elsewhere, women are often the fetishized object of this more than most.
Garfield's Sam, despite having no special qualities in particular, is centered (and centers himself) in a narrative in which he is the brave and determined hero who will uncover a truth that no one else can. But it's essentially a truth that is obvious to everyone but him. And that directly leads to the other target of Under the Silver Lake's commentary, which is a critique on millennial culture. It's, honestly, more than a little eye-rolling of a critique, particularly coming from a fellow Gen-Xer like myself (fun fact: Mitchell and I are the same age, born about a dozen miles away from each other). But what kind of works (and this may just be for me) is thinking about where the line is between commenting on and critiquing a thing, while so very much being the thing that you're commenting on an critiquing. Under the Silver Lake lives right in that dissonance, for better or for worse.
Where the film unquestionably excels is in the performances by Andrew Garfield as Sam. While his Peter Parker in the Marc Webb Spider-Man films could often feel very much like a British actor doing as many James Dean acting tics as possible - hilariously parodied in this Bad Lip Reading video - his Sam is much more grounded, slowly revealing just how dysfunctional and fucked up the character is. Unfortunately, while the rest of the cast is perfectly fine, they aren't given much to do, and the women in particular are more types than characters. It's a shame, because while Mitchell demonstrated in It Follows that he can write interesting and complex women, none of that is on display here.
Shout-Out: To the film, I guess, for being something that I feel kind of ashamed for liking, or being fascinated by, almost in spite of itself.
Final Thought: I was initially surprised that A24 bypassed a theatrical release, but its target audience seems to be so niche that once I saw it I understood why. If you're in that niche, it's worth checking out on streaming.