Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Under the Silver Lake is David Robert Mitchell’s dreamlike, rationality-transcending contemporary noir, starring Andrew Garfield.

Zoom and Doom

by Alexa Dalby

Under the Silver Lake

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

It’s hard to believe that a film that’s a mixture of Rear Window, Mulholland Drive and The Wizard of Oz could end up as less than the sum of its parts. But somehow Under the Silver Lake manages it.

Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a Los Angeles slacker with no visible job or income, who finds himself caught up, sometimes voyeuristically, in a tangle of disparate conspiracy theories that unravel like a contemporary film noir.

Sam’s sunny, leafy residential LA suburb is suffused with an atmosphere of suspicion because there’s a dog killer on the loose. Sam nearly hooks up with Sarah (Riley Keough), a blonde girl who seems to live in his apartment block and who he watches in its swimming pool. When she and her flatmate (Zosia Mamet) move out overnight with no warning, his compulsive search for her leads him into various subcultures in the city.

His trail takes him through inexplicable incidents: a series of strange encounters with people from the Hollywood periphery, cult-like audiences at gigs by a Gothy band – Jesus and the Brides of Dracula – that may have coded messages in their songs, the mysterious death of a local billionaire, the paranoid conspiracy theories of an underground graphic artist (Patrick Fischler) of a ‘zine titled Under the Silver Lake, a murderous Owl Woman and… a surprising use for Kurt Cobain’s guitar. As if that wasn’t enough, an encounter with a god-like songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) undercuts decades of teenage rebellion. Oh, and it’s also a homage to the golden days of Hollywood, as TVs playing cable channels serendipitously crop up with apposite clips of old movies.

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (of acclaimed horror It Follows), Under the Silver Lake is flashily and excitingly shot, with sudden zooms and skew-whiff camera angles that create a sense of unspecified unease in the everyday, sometimes intercut with animation clips. It makes good use of noirish, atmospheric music and pop song snippets. Dialogue is strikingly slow and dreamlike adding to the general disorientation.

At first we expect that, conventionally, everything is there for a reason, that the film noir elements and structure – so incongruous in sun-bleached suburban streets – will develop, that loose ends will be tied up and we hope that the mystery (or the several mysteries) will be resolved. No such luck. Instead, frustratingly, the film wilfully disappears down a rabbit hole of its own making. Maybe everything’s underpinned by a global conspiracy – or maybe it’s just plain weird. Who knows. There’s so much going on. That’s not to say Under the Silver Lake is not at times enjoyable – Intrigued? Go and see it for yourself – it’s just that despite the high budget for the director to play around with and its stylish, Lynchish veneer, it may all in the end just be a shaggy dog story. And there’s a dog killer on the loose.

Under the Silver Lake premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 15 March 2019 in the UK.

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