Under the Silver Lake is a weird film. A weird, weird film where a lot of things happen very quickly and not all of them immediately make sense. Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an unemployed loser on the brink of eviction from his Silver Lake, Los Angeles apartment. It’s never made clear what exactly Sam did to afford living in LA before he became unemployed, but that’s not important. Sam has a crush on his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), who mysteriously disappears the night before he’s supposed to see her, suspiciously coinciding with the death of a wealthy businessman. Using his obsession with patterns and hidden messages, Sam searches for Sarah by immersing himself in a seedy and superficial world of aspiring actors, millionaires and conspiracy theorists, diving further down a twisted rabbit hole that may ultimately be beyond escape.
It’s never a good sign when a film’s release is pushed back once, let alone twice in the case of Under the Silver Lake. After lukewarm reviews at Cannes, studio A24 originally decided to move the film from its initial summer 2018 release to December the same year. A24 then pushed the release even further to March 2019 to avoid the crowded awards season slate, the correct move for a film too strange for The Academy’s more traditional tastes. Indeed, It Follows director David Robert Mitchell flirts with the horror stylings of his debut just enough to keep audiences on their toes while maintaining the tone of a neo-noir mystery in the vein of Paul Thomas Anderson’s criminally underrated Inherent Viceor Shane Black’s equally overlooked Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Just like in Anderson and Shane Black’s films, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo from which all three films take inspiration, subtext is key. Detail is so important both thematically and to the plot of Under the Silver Lake that audiences are rewarded for being as obsessive as the film’s protagonist. The impact of what seems like throwaway dialogue early on in the film snowballs throughout, becoming pivotal as it reaches its climax. By keeping his script lean and almost entirely exposition free, David Robert Mitchell allows the audience to discover things at the same time as his protagonist, upping the stakes and making each twist and turn (of which there are many) that much more surprising. Supporting characters float in and out of scenes, with Garfield’s performance as Sam anchoring the film in a distorted version of reality, as if he is recalling hazy events from a bad psychedelic trip.
The problem with a film so scatter-brained, so dense with detail, hidden messages and plot, is that not all of these threads can be resolved to a satisfying standard when all is said and done. Mitchell plants seeds at the start of the film that are seemingly abandoned or barely revisited later on, while others not introduced until midway through become much more important towards the end. Coupled with the ironic, self-aware sense of humour, the flippant introduction of characters and ideas makes Under the Silver Lakefeel somewhat aloof, like it thinks itself too cool to care about cinematic traditions like resolving plots and paying-off character introductions. In a film full of brilliantly unique and funny moments, it’s a shame that Under the Silver Lakeoften feels like it’s trying to be everywhere at once.
This is a film that demands your attention from the opening scene and undoubtedly requires multiple viewings to fully understand. In an ideal world, Under the Silver Lake would join the ranks of other modern cult classics like Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive, analysed and appreciated by obsessive fans for years after their release. Whether or not the present day attention span, or lack thereof, will allow Under the Silver Lake to reach this status remains to be seen, but it is still one of the most refreshingly odd and complex films of recent memory and a worthy addition to A24’s ever-growing catalogue of unique gems.
Under The Silver Lake is released on the 15th March 2019.
Words by Ethan Megenis Clarke @_ethanmc.
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