We haven’t done a Weekend Review of an older film for some time, so here’s one for 2020, a film that, after numerous delays, finally saw release last summer, but found its biggest audience on AmazonPrime. David Robert Mitchell got notice for his first feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, and then he wrote and directed a brilliant and very successful horror film called It Follows. He was apparently given a free reign and significant budget for this project, which blends indie comedy, neo-Noir, conspiracy theory, and urban fantasy, with interesting, but decidedly mixed, results.1
Title: Under the Silver Lake (2019)
Cast and Crew
Directed and written by David Robert Mitchell
Andrew Garfield as Sam
Wendy Vanden Heuvel as Bird Woman
Riley Keough as Sarah
Riki Lindhome as Aspiring Actress/Friend2
Deborah Geffner as Voice of Mom (voice)
Topher Grace as Drinking Buddy
Jimmi Simpson as Allen
Luke Baines as Jesus
Allie MacDonald as Meek Bride
Victoria Bruno as Clara Bow Bride
Lola Blanc as Reading Glasses Bride
Chris Gann as Jefferson Sevence
Callie Hernandez as Millicent Sevence
Jessica Makinson as Mrs. Sevence
Stephanie Moore as Brunette Roomate
Sibongile Mlambo as Blonde Roommate
Rex Linn as Manager
Grace Van Patten as Balloon Girl
Zosia Mamet as Troy
Annabelle Dexter-Jones as Fannie
Silversun Pickups as themselves
Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Sydney Sweeney as Shooting Stars
Millie Atchison, Cheyenne Haynes, and Elizabeth Hinkler as Bathroom Girls
Ivy Matheson, Gabrielle Maiden, Brittney Parker Rose as Miniskirt Girls
Karen Nitsche as Owl’s Kiss
David Yow as the Homeless King
Jeremy Bobb as the Songwriter
A disaffected, unemployed, pop-culture-obsessed hipster in LA becomes more than a little curious when the neighbour he is just getting to know disappears with her roommates in the night. He begins following a series of increasingly bizarre and questionable clues to a larger mystery that involves a deceased billionaire, a deranged conspiracy theorist, an avant-garde band, a guy dressed like a pirate, a prostitution ring, a top secret project, and a supernatural figure. Meanwhile, a deranged killer stalks the dogs of Los Angeles….
Mitchell and company have crafted a visual fever-dream, filmed with brilliantly composed shots, stunning lighting, and views of LA that suit the film’s ironic-mythic tone. It looks and sounds great. Its protagonist plays nicely as a parody of a current cultural type: everything he notices or thinks he notices must matter to the universe, because they matter to him.
The film desperately wants to be different, and it often succeeds, but the solution to the mystery does not entirely justify (or even explain)3 the film’s mountain of cryptic craziness. I can’t decide if Mitchell wanted to make a Pynchonesque film, but didn’t quite succeed, or if he took advantage of his newfound success and status to film all of those cool ideas he had for movies when he was nineteen. Both explanations may be false, but either would make sense.
Originality: 4/6 Under the Silver Lake certainly wants to be original, and many elements make it unlike anything you’ve seen. If you’ve read a lot of writing by adolescents/twentysomethings, however, you will recognize the tropes.4 An arrested adolescent with no visible means of support (admittedly, his car gets repossessed and he’s about to lose his apartment) drinks and gets high, meanders around, has sex with attractive women, and stumbles onto cryptic clues, wild parties, and encounters absolutely everything that crossed the writer’s mind at the time of composition. He sees things others do not, but cannot convince them he’s right—in part, because, he may not be. An enigmatic figure gives a lengthy thematic speech. Unrelated mysteries swirl around the main one, with no explanation, because the writer does not have one. They’re signs of the protagonist’s instability and, you know, symbols or whatever. Anything potentially clichéd or offensive can be dismissed as irony. So, for example, there’s a lot of male gaze and male entitlement and exploitation of naked women, but, see, the film is criticizing those things, so it’s totally okay.
Effects: 4/6 This is mythic LA, created in part with visual trickery.
Acting: 6/6 Andrew Garfield gives an impressive performance, and the supporting cast, while they do not always have developed characters to play, are excellent. I suspect it might have been a good deal of fun to be involved with this movie.
Production: 6/6 You only wish that anything you are involved in receives this level of production. And yet, reportedly, they created Under the Silver Lake on a comparatively small budget.
Story: 4/6 Basically, we have a neo-Noir movie where the clues are the sort of thing paranoiacs and Infowarriors take seriously, except here, they actually lead somewhere or, at least, Sam thinks they do. Along the way, everything and anything gets dropped into the film, including at least one supernatural being.
However, Sam is not a reliable guide through his own story, and the solution to the main mystery does work, from a certain point-of-view. It strikes me that a very different crazy film might have been made if they had focused on the main solution, and spent more time thinking through the ideas the film launches and then, too often, abandons.
Emotional Response: 4/6 The film polarized critics, and my own reaction reflects the disparity well. I enjoyed portions of this movie while wrestling with the feeling that it was wasting my time.
Overall: 4/6 Enough of this film works to make it worth seeing, if any aspect of it sounds appealing.
In total, Under the Silver Lake receives 32/42
1. To quote the writer / director from an interview at Vulture:
It definitely wasn’t a project I went into going, “This is gonna be the next Forrest Gump.” It’s the anti–Forrest Gump or the anti–La La Land. It’s a darker, skewed look at the collective consciousness of a city defined by capitalist, misogynistic, patriarchal, superficial values that have led people astray. It’s fascinating to me that people might miss the clues, and I think that says quite a lot about what they want to see rather than what’s being presented.
2. The actress also forms one-half of the musical/comedy duet Garfunkel and Oates. They have parodied her tendency to get parts where she has to remove her clothing, while Kate Micucci gets offered nerd girl roles. In this film, Lindhome wears suggestive outfits, removes her clothes, and has simulated sex with the protagonist. Micucci’s longest-standing role has been the voice of Velma Dinkley on recent incarnations of Scooby-Doo. Both women have appeared in episodes of Big Bang Theory.
3. But that’s, like, the point, dude.
4. I am not so-classifying all writing by young people, and everyone has to start somewhere. Some writers do their best work in their twenties, and, yeah, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote a book of some note while still a teenager.