In his unsettling 2015 breakout horror hit It Follows, David Robert Mitchell showed real mastery at modulating tone and atmosphere with deft use of music, sound and supple camerawork applied to a genuinely creepy premise. Those skills again are evident, along with the dreamy undertow, in the writer-director’s ambitious follow-up, Under the Silver Lake, which shapes the distinctive geography and architecture of socially stratified Los Angeles into an alluring canvas, by turns glittering and murky. But despite a compelling lead in Andrew Garfield, the tension dissipates rather than mounts as this knotty neo-noir slides into a Lynchian swamp of outre weirdness.
The movie is so awash in Hollywood references, from sly to obvious, that it borders on pastiche, which might provide some cinephile diversion. But it’s Garfield, gamely straddling the bridge between seedy slacker and driven truth-seeker, who anchors every scene and will represent A24’s best shot at drawing an audience with the early summer release.
His character, Sam, is a rudderless Angeleno whose obsession with a vanished woman sucks him into a web of pop-cultural enigmas and cultish secrets of the super rich. Seen back to back with the actor’s fearless emotional deep dive in the current Broadway revival of Angels in America, this film again shows Garfield in magnetic form, shaking off his somewhat earnest nice-guy persona to explore a darker, looser, more unknowable side. Mitchell even inserts sneaky nods to his star’s Spider-Man past, though he’s traded great power and responsibility for a porn stash, a Peeping Tom habit and a shower of skunk spray.
Mitchell is extravagantly talented and very likely still has a great movie in him. But in terms of awkward career progressions, it seems inevitable that the lurch from It Follows to this swollen dramatic sprawl will draw comparison to Richard Kelly’s banana-peel slip from the mesmerizing genre-bending of Donnie Darko to the overreaching mess of Southland Tales, which also premiered in competition at Cannes.
Though Under the Silver Lake is a better, more coherent movie, it shares Southland‘s fixation with alternative histories and vast conspiracies that becomes progressively less intriguing and more WTF tiresome; an affection for the nihilism, paranoia and arch suspense of canonical noir like Kiss Me Deadly; and a satirical perspective on Los Angeles that seldom translates into actual humor. What’s most disappointing, given the potent themes of yearning, vulnerability and anxiety that connected Mitchell’s lovely 2012 coming-of-age debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (revisited here in a meta moment), to It Follows, is how little he makes us care about the central character or his consuming quest.
From the opening widescreen frame, in which gifted cinematographer Michael Gioulakis slow pans into an Eastside hipster coffee shop where Sam waits for his latte, Mitchell starts dropping clues like bread crumbs, many of them mindfuck MacGuffins.
Window graffiti reads “Beware the Dog Killer”; glitter-pop band Jesus & the Brides of Dracula adorn the cover of a free weekly while their catchy hit “Turning Teeth” is heard; and a dying squirrel drops out of a tree at Sam’s feet before he makes it back to his apartment, from which he’s about to be evicted for unpaid rent. He also gets a phone call from his mom early on about a TV broadcast that night of Janet Gaynor in 7th Heaven, signaling that Mitchell’s Hollywood Dream Factory investigation will loop back as far as the silent era.
We don’t need to see the Rear Window poster on Sam’s living-room wall to get the homage as he trains his binoculars on a topless neighbor feeding her parrots before settling his gaze on new resident Sarah (Riley Keough), rocking a white bikini down by the pool with her dog. But before he makes contact, his thankless actress girlfriend (Riki Lindhome) drops by unexpectedly for some passionless humping while they watch a TV news report about a missing billionaire. Further conspicuous clues that will factor in later come with the vintage Playboy by Sam’s bed and the Nirvana poster above it.
When he finally meets Sarah, the breathy blonde invites him in to get stoned and watch How to Marry a Millionaire, establishing a Marilyn Monroe link that will resurface in Sam’s dream of Sarah in the famous Something’s Got to Give nude pool scene. Around the same time, Sam discovers the hand-made zine that gives the movie its title, which digs into the arcane lore of the Silver Lake area, generating some cool animated interludes courtesy of illustrator Milo Neuman. When Sarah abruptly vacates her apartment and disappears without a trace, Sam starts finding connections in strange places.
The foundations are capably laid, but it gradually becomes apparent that Mitchell is so high on the infinite complexities he can conjure from his fruitful imagination that following Sam down the rabbit hole will yield decreasing returns. Just the removal for much of the movie of Keough’s intoxicating presence creates a void, since aside from Garfield, she gives the only performance that leaves a lingering impression.
In an overstuffed film running two hours and 20 minutes, too many scenes play like meandering padding even if they do have sketchy relevance — Sam’s conversations with his buddies (Topher Grace and Jimmi Simpson); his encounter with a gorgeous party-circuit balloon dancer (Grace Van Patten); his discovery of an escort agency staffed by struggling Hollywood It girls; his entree into the paranoid vortex of the zine creator (Patrick Fischler). When one of the Brides of Dracula covers “To Sir With Love” in the wispy dream-pixie style of Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks, the gnawing suspicion has already taken hold that Mitchell is riffing as much as telling a story.
To the writer-director’s credit, the pieces of the convoluted puzzle eventually do more or less fit together, even the Homeless King (David Yow), who leads Sam on a labyrinthine path to discovery, and the mysterious Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), a master manipulator out of Citizen Kane, living in his gated Xanadu. Maybe not so much the hoboglyphs and the lethal Owl’s Kiss creature.
But if there’s any wit or real-world currency in the observations on subliminal messages in pop culture; ascension to a higher plane as a privilege of wealth, beauty and fame; the commodification of women; and the peculiar brand of shallowness often associated with Los Angeles (“Hamburgers are love,” proclaims a billboard near the end), it gets dulled by the movie’s increasing ponderousness. The more Mitchell elucidates his flagrantly complicated plot, the less interesting it becomes. A much-smaller-scale recent indie feature with comparable elements, Aaron Katz’s Gemini, fumbled its late plot twists but nonetheless remained more pleasurably, teasingly elusive as it scratched beneath L.A.’s shiny surfaces.
While the score by Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, stirs up high drama in the lush symphonic mode of Franz Waxman or Bernard Hermann, Mitchell appears to be giving a cheeky wink when he quite literally ties his own work to Hitchcock. The more consistent touchstone is David Lynch, though that’s shooting himself in the foot when Mulholland Drive did this kind of thing so much more beguilingly.
Nonetheless, even if the movie adds up to less than the sum of its too numerous parts, individual scenes are transfixing, among them a moonlight swim that turns deadly in the Silver Lake Reservoir. Mitchell and Gioulakis bring a fresh eye to a wide range of L.A. locations — Echo Park Lake, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Griffith Park Observatory, Second Street Tunnel, the Hollywood Hills, Bronson Canyon — that creates visual texture even with the most familiar of them. Still, before all the mysteries are revealed to a suitably gobsmacked Sam, I was mentally checking out and begging for the Owl’s Kiss to release me.
Production companies: Vendian Entertainment, VX119 Media Capital, Stay Gold Features, Good Fear, Michael De Luca Productions, PASTEL, UnLTD Productions, Salem Street Entertainment, Boo Pictures
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Zosia Mamet, Callie Hernandez, Patrick Fischler, Grace Van Patten, Jimmi Simpson, Laura-Leigh, Sydney Sweeney, Summer Bishi, Jeremy Bobb, David Yow, Riki Lindhome
Director-screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell
Producers: Michael De Luca, Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, Adele Romanski, David Robert Mitchell
Executive producers: Michael Bassick, Sam Lufti, Jenny Hinkey, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Alan Pao, Luke Daniels, Todd Remis, David Moscow, Daniel Rainey, Jeffrey Konvita, Jeff Geoffray, Candice Abela Mikati
Director of photography: Michael Gioulakis
Production designer: Michael Perry
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Editor: Julio Perez IV
Illustrator: Milo Neuman
Casting: Mark Bennett
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Rated R; 139 minutes