UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
Almost compelling, almost good. If only its strangeness weren't lifeless and off-putting, Under the Silver Lake might've been something.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Spoiler alert: maybe very slightly more than moderate, but a movie that doesn't resolve itself like this one can hardly be spoiled at a particularly high level
Under the Silver Lake arrived a couple months ago already pretty fully submerged, and while it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to understand the reasons, on paper it looks like it ought to be appealing. In fact, considering its origins, it strikes the uninitiated as one of the most crowd-pleasing things to ever get funded by the A24 pretension factory, known best for such easygoing populist entertainments as The Witch and The Lobster (though—in fairness—also Moonlight and Swiss Army Man). It was the sophomore feature from David Robert Mitchell, at the time hot enough to get another film made on the back of the remarkable (and at least somewhat unearned) critical success of It Follows. But it wound up being consistently rescheduled—it premiered at Cannes well over a year ago; it finished production back in 2016—and, in the end, it was dumped in the April of 2019, given a perfunctory and rather puny theatrical release, more-or-less simultaneous with its release on VOD, which is where I found out why A24 might not have had much faith in it. Still, on paper...
What we have with Silver Lake is a shaggy little Angeleno neo-noir type of thing, heavily inflected with kooky conspiracy culture (mostly of a whimsical, bespoke sort, rather than the depressing, Pizzagate sort), and driven by the paranoid meanderings of its hero—well, its lead—Sam (Andrew Garfield). Sam's what the Japanese might term a hikikomori, and what Americans would term a loser, and one of the running themes of the movie is that eventually almost all of his scene partners notice that he smells. As Sam perceives it, he's been born into a world surrounded by secret machinations, inexplicable happenings, and cryptozoological terrors. However, being very lazy, he has contented himself mostly with attempts to decode the messages hidden in the pattern of Vanna White's blinks on Wheel of Fortune. But on the day we meet him, Sam's made the acquaintance of a pleasant and pretty neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), who's just moved in; yet, after spending an evening hanging out, Sam returns the following day to discover she's just up and gone, no explanation beyond her emptied-out apartment and one very strange symbol painted on her wall. That's all Sam's brain needs to start hatching some extremely serious theories, and here his investigation begins, taking him through a fucked-up Los Angeles netherworld to eventually collide with the secret gods of the world.
Maybe, anyway. Silver Lake probably isn't meant to be taken, you know, totally literally. It's certainly vastly worse if you do, though it's resentfully silent when it comes to exactly how literal is just right. The thing about Silver Lake is that it's always intriguing—especially for the first hour and a half, though this is where I note it keeps going for almost a full hour more—threading through all sorts of tantalizing subplots, from a murderous owl/woman hybrid revealed via a fellow crazy person's 'zine, to a serial killer of dogs, to a kingdom of the homeless, to what becomes increasingly akin to a genuine murder mystery as the loose ends of the Sarah situation appear to get tied up. And, for all that, it never quite actually manages to be any particular fun. (What fun it manages to latch onto is usually pretty secondhand, like a needledrop of "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" during a 90s night at a nightclub.) The rambly story naturally takes Sam on a variety of paths. Most of them involve stalking, and nearly all of them somehow wind up with Sam fucking somebody, in one dubious way or another.
Without a doubt, Silver Lake would be superior if it let us know he was just jacking off to women he's seen, but considering there is a literal masturbation scene in here, I'm not honestly sure that's what we're supposed to take away; it's entirely possible Mitchell just wanted to make a sleazy noir with three or four sides of porn, and just forgot to put the slightest eroticism into the porn. (It takes a truly perverse director to be able to convince statuesque comedienne Riki Lindholme to get naked and not make it at least a little hot, or at least a little funny, but this Mitchell manages.) There's probably some kind of indictment of the male gaze, or whatever, happening in principle (a scene of drone-assisted voyeurism reveals a woman, topless, then weeping for reasons that are purposefully mysterious; a woman's fresh corpse reminds Sam of the cover of first porn mag he ever masturbated to), but, honestly, in practice, it really doesn't matter. It's bad at feminism and it's worse at exploitation. Meanwhile, the dog killer plot crops up an awful lot, including in the film's only overt hallucinations—of women barking like dogs—especially for something that doesn't wind up really resolving itself. It leaves one in the position of either resolving it on the movie's behalf—that is, taking the leap across the gap the movie's left open and guessing that Sam is the dog killer, and probably ramping up to women—or ignoring it, because otherwise you just spent 139 minutes watching a murderer of animals go on a goofy adventure.
It's not the best place for a "fun" movie to leave you, and while that sort of sounds like a personal expectation that the film is not, in fact, trying to live up to, that rationalization doesn't get you far. Not when Silver Lake wants to be The Big Lebowski, But Moreso this badly. (I don't think it wants to be Inherent Vice, but it winds up much, much closer to that particular shaggy dog story benchmark, if, to its credit, Silver Lake's never quite as ponderous.) Still, despite a cast of colorful weirdos and many bizarre tangents, it can only rouse up to comedy on rare occasions. Perhaps it's Sam's isolation and alienation that kill it. He can only make friends with strangers. Besides Lindholme's inexplicable fuckbuddy, he has one "pal," a Topher Grace who's recognizable only by voice, isn't very interesting, and who appears in but a mere handfull of scenes. It of course doesn't help the comparison to consider that the Dude, even by himself, was a colorful and likeable guy; whereas despite Garfield trying to layer the darkness in Sam so that his surfaces seem mostly harmless, our hero remains repellent at best.
Sometimes, though, Silver Lake breaks through its own ice with sheer absurdity, and I won't say it doesn't have glorious moments. Some are little but delectable trifles, notably the way Garfield trails people, running behind trees that couldn't possibly actually hide his body, galloping on tip-toes the way a villain might in an old cartoon about spies. Some are big, grand things—especially when Sam picks up on a series of clues hidden in rock songs and it leads him to a confrontation with The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb, and those capitals definitely implied). It's the one scene where Silver Lake lives up wholly to the insanity and the paranoia, not to mention the cynicism and bitterness, that reside at the beating heart of it. For five minutes, it actually is a great film. (And take that, Kurt Cobain. Also, Mozart.) At the same time, it feels like the damned end of the movie, and God knows there's much more still to come. Not all of the movie-to-come is bad, but all of it seems like falling action after Sam's made contact with something altogether supernatural. The ultimate answers Sam's still seeking, Sam gets. They're intriguing, like I said. And kind of lame. That's kind of the point, too, but... so what?