David Robert Mitchell’s new movie Under the Silver Lake is both an entertaining farce and a challenging neo-noir doomed to obscurity.
In 2015, director David Robert Mitchell’s horror film It Follows achieved indie darling status. After premiering to raves at Cannes, it went on to score the best limited opening for a film released in the U.S. and Canada in 2015. Critics lauded the film for its precise and skilled direction, strong world-building, effective scares, and focused narrative. Almost exactly four years later, director David Robert Mitchell is back and his newest movie is the most sublime and surprising reinvention.
In the very first shot of Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell places the camera on the inside looking out at the world through defaced store front window. In large capital letters that appear drawn on with a black Sharpie, a message reads: BEWARE THE DOG KILLER.
This is the first of many mysterious clues, uncanny patterns, and mixed messages baked into this ambitious two hour and twenty minute absurdly satrical neo-noir set in one very specific Los Angeles neighborhood featuring cults, conspiracy theories, killer owls, and a rock band named Jesus and the Brides of Dracula. If this description makes the movie sound bizarre and weirdly niche, well, that’s because it is.
What’s so special about Under the Silver Lake is that regardless of whether you love or hate it, whether you surrender yourself to its weirdness or completely reject it, it will leave you saying the same thing: “How the hell did this get made?” Clocking in at 140 minutes, a runtime normally reserved for the latest superhero schlock or biopic Oscar bait, the film leads the audience down a confounding rabbit hole, filled with eccentric characters and inexplicable mystery, that is both a road to nowhere and a path to discovery.
At the forefront of it all is Andrew Garfield in one of the best roles he’s ever had, delivering a performance worthy of more attention than it will get. Garfield, whose career is built on playing the palatably nice and sympathetic hero, is inspired casting for the role that satirizes heroics by turning them into a farce. Garfield plays Sam, an aimless unemployed jerk behind on his rent that spends his time leering at women from his apartment balcony, lying to his doting mother, masturbating a lot, and beating up neighborhood pranksters. This is undoubtedly a far cry from Garfield’s Peter Parker.
In the first act of the movie, Sam meets Sarah played by Riley Keough. Unsurprisingly, Sam is immediately attracted to Sarah. We assume she’s his type — after all, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Sam’s occasional fuck buddy — so when the two share a meet cute followed by a romantic night together, it appears the movie is following a familiar formula. That is, until it doesn’t.
The next day, Sam wakes up to find Sarah gone. With her apartment completely vacated and her dog’s cheerful bark absent, Sam takes things into his own hands. Refusing to believe the landlord’s explanation (“They wanted to leave. They forfeited their deposit. Paid the lease. They moved out. Nothing strange about it.”), Sam breaks into Sarah’s now empty apartment. He digs through the one last remaining box of her possessions before a stranger shows up at the apartment — carrying a set of keys — to pick up the very same box.
This kicks off Sam’s tireless investigation into Sarah’s disappearance. Turning up more clues than you can count and more dead ends than a neighborhood in the Hollywood hills, what begins as a search for a lost romantic conquest evolves into something much bigger, both an interrogation of outlandish pop culture conspiracy theories and an exploration into exclusive enclaves in LA’s dark underbelly.
Under the Silver Lake is the best kind of bait-and-switch; what begins as a prototypical look at a loser pursuing a girl way out of his league turns into a wickedly fun portrait of obsession and paranoia set against a backdrop of an otherworldly city, full of its own unique brand of mystery, assuming you know where to look.
For some, this bait-and-switch may not be easy to swallow. There is a clear tension between the abundance of clues and the dearth of answers, one that will no doubt frustrate some, especially as the film takes pleasure in this imbalance. Even with its runtime, Under the Silver Lake takes time to fully click into place. For me, the ending sealed the deal, leaving me ready to take the journey all over again. Director David Robert Mitchel demands a certain level of trust from the audience, challenging them to take this ride with him as he takes us places we didn’t expect to go.
If It Follows was the movie to put David Robert Mitchell on the map, then Under the Silver Lake should be the movie that proves he’s the one drawing the map. He exhibits such a clear-eyed command of the medium, working as both the author and the audience of his own story. Mitchell toys with the boundaries of genre, portrays sex and violence as two sides of the same charade, satirizes the male ego, critiques the corruptive nature of wealth, all while composing beautifully framed and stunningly designed images that reinforce the ever-growing divide between the truths we acknowledge and the ones we ignore.
However, this challenge may be the very thing to doom Under the Silver Lake‘s chance for success. The film’s niche appeal hasn’t been helped by its shoddy theatrical release. After premiering at Cannes to middling reviews last May, distribution company A24 pushed the film’s release from June to December 2018. Then, only weeks before the December release date, the company pushed the movie back again tearing down the film’s reputation in the process.
Under the Silver Lake will finally make its way into select theaters this weekend followed by a digital release on April 22. Don’t let the film’s treatment by its own distribution company dissuade you from seeing it. The film’s release may doom it to obscurity, but with time and the right audience, that obscurity may transform into beloved cult classic. That’s exactly what this movie deserves.