Under the Silver Lake review: Too dark to work as comic satire but too flippant to make an engrossing mystery thriller
The film is somewhere between an adolescent male wish fulfilment fantasy and a very self-conscious updating of a Raymond Chandler thriller
Dir: David Robert Mitchell. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Wendy vanden Heuvel, Riki Lindhome. Cert 15, 139 mins
Skunks fall from trees and secret messages are found in cereal packets in David Robert Mitchell’s bizarre new neo-noir drama set in LA. Under the Silver Lake is somewhere between an adolescent male wish fulfilment fantasy and a very self-conscious updating of a Raymond Chandler thriller. At least, its star Andrew Garfield looks as if he is thoroughly enjoying himself as the hero, Sam, a slacker Philip Marlowe type with voyeuristic tendencies, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that matters only to him.
In the course of the movie, Sam has intoxicating adventures with various different femmes fatales, most of whom seem very willing to sleep with him, and uncovers a conspiracy involving a missing billionaire and a serial killer who targets dogs. Director Mitchell throws in continual references to Hitchcock, James Dean and Janet Gaynor. You’ll also find echoes here of Coen brothers films like Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski and Robert Altman’s LA-set dramas. The Bernard Herrmann-like musical soundtrack adds to the film’s jarring tone. So does the fact that the main protagonists all behave in such a wantonly strange way.
Under the Silver Lake has brilliant scenes but it also feels derivative and increasingly self-indulgent.
Sam is a long-term resident in a seedy motel. He likes to sit on his balcony and peer through his binoculars at his topless neighbour or at the incongruously glamorous new guest, Sarah (Riley Keough), as she sunbathes by the pool in her white bikini and Lolita-like hat and with her little white pooch beside her. Sam can’t afford his rent. The screenplay never really explains what he is doing in LA and he gets very defensive when anybody asks whether he works. Is he a would-be scriptwriter or a drifter? Is he mentally unstable? We never discover. He has a long-suffering girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), an aspiring actor, but doesn’t pay too much attention to her.
Strange things keep happening to Sam and he is convinced that they are all interrelated. A skunk sprays him. One of LA’s wealthiest citizens, Jefferson Sevence, “the face of the city for decades”, seemingly dies in a car accident with Sarah alongside him. Dogs get killed. He discovers a comic book called Under the Silver Lake in the local bookstore, Intelligentsia. This appears to hold the answers to the mysterious crimes, murders and disappearances in the community. So do the songs of a local band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, whose lead singer is a Jim Morrison lookalike.
When he was making his screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks famously admitted that he couldn’t work out the plot himself. Audiences had the same problem with the film’s famously convoluted storyline but it didn’t matter. They were so intrigued by Bogart and Bacall and by the mood of the film that they forgot about the digressions and dead ends in the narrative. Under the Silver Lake doesn’t cast the same spell. This means that frustration is likely to set in as viewers try to work out exactly what is going on or why.
The sexual politics here is on the murky side. At one stage, a performance poet recites free verse about “women writhing like plants under the heat of this city’s male gaze”. However, Sam is a testosterone-driven Peeping Tom himself and the film is full of scenes of him gawping at women either in real life or on billboards. He proudly shows his girlfriend the old copy of Playboy he stole from his father and that fuelled his earliest masturbatory fantasies. At times, as he follows different women around town, he behaves like a stalker. Most of the female characters here are very insubstantially drawn. They are there as objects of his fantasy and obsession rather than as characters in their own right.
Another problem is the lack here of a convincing villain. In the best film noirs, there will be heavies and criminal masterminds plotting all sorts of mischief and evil. Here, the bad guys are hippy types in pirate costumes or elderly songwriters hiding secret messages in their song lyrics.
Garfield just about keeps the venture afloat. He is a very likeable protagonist, somehow playing Sam both as an obsessive and tormented figure and as affable and laidback. Sam is capable of surprising levels of violence and neurosis but Garfield’s charm ensures we are never repelled by him. He brings humour and charm to a character who could easily have seemed like a creepy misfit. Nothing seems to bother him too much. If he is threatened with eviction or has his car repossessed, he simply takes it in his stride.
Even so, Under the Silver Lake is too dark to work as comic satire but too flippant and digressive to make an engrossing mystery thriller. Perhaps it is best taken as an observational drama about the eccentricities and narcissism of LA types, young and old. The tremendous soundtrack music (by composer Disasterpeace who also scored Mitchell’s previous feature It Follows) gives the film an atmosphere and sense of mystery it would otherwise lack.