Director David Robert Mitchell
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE B-
USA (139 mi) 2019 ‘Scope d: David Robert Mitchell Official site
You ever feel like you fucked up somewhere a long time ago and you’re living the wrong life? Like the bad version of the life you’re supposed to have.
―Sam (Andrew Garfield)
A film for our times, yet so far under the radar that you’re likely to miss it, with such an overly pretentious view of itself that it literally screams LA, with a do-nothing guy known as Sam, as in Sam Spade, played by slacker/detective Andrew Garfield living on the periphery acting as our travel guide through the labyrinth and marijuana haze of Southern California youth culture, a somewhat laid-back alter-ego of the director, where in this Peter Pan world you never grow up, but remain in a state of arrested adolescence for your entire life. While not exactly a comedy, this film is utterly preposterous, holding little appeal to those with half a brain, yet for those cultists and wacky conspiracy theorists out there, this may as well be your Bible, as it deeply emanates from your altered brainwaves. For those who have never been to Los Angeles, this may as well be foreign territory, but for those who appreciate what a weird and twisted place it can be, filled with wannabe’s from around the country trying to break into the movie business, who are penniless and working brain dead jobs while waiting for call backs that never come, with one foot out the door from impending eviction, it’s a collection of weirdly goofy people who will believe just about anything, as this film suggests. As misguided as Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic sci-fi film SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) turned out to be, which was such an unmitigated disaster that it pretty much derailed his film career forever, this one will give it a run for its money, though it’s not nearly the catastrophic mess that one was. Actually it takes itself quite seriously, wrapped around clues and puzzles and treasure maps that all supposedly hold the secrets to the universe, with this film finding novel ways to unravel those precious secrets, decoding messages hidden in pop songs, old movies, comic books or magazines, with nothing quite as bonkers as scrutinizing old tapes of Wheel of Fortune, searching for hidden patterns in the random movement of Vanna White’s eyes, suggesting there must be a deep hidden meaning there. This is a film that takes literally the signs and symbols contained inside The Hobo Handbook, as if it is an authority on indecipherable signs that appear in unexpected places all over the landscape. Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the film is that there will be viewers who trace down every possible clue, trying to make sense of the obscure, elevating meaninglessness into clarity.
Set in the distant past of not so long ago, the film quietly premiered in competition at Cannes in 2018, an odd pick to be sure, but his first two films THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (2010) and It Follows (2014) both premiered in the Critics Week section of Cannes, so the director has a history with the festival. Almost immediately the film had problems with distribution, where an early summer release date was pushed back to Christmas, then to Spring before being released in Video On Demand simultaneous to its theatrical release more than a year following the premiere, all suggesting they were clueless how to market the film, as it doesn’t fit neatly into a commercial venture, feeling more like a quirky yet overlong indie film, where there’s not exactly a payoff at the end for sticking with it. This is a film that is literally saturated with pop culture references, too many to count, where the director must believe these are insanely clever cinematic references, yet this knowledge does not enhance one’s appreciation for the film, which is largely a quixotic journey through the underbelly of Hollywood culture, where narcissism and extravagant wealth rule a town littered with fakery and a manipulative advertisement mentality of surface artificiality and cheap imitations, where self-indulgence is a trap door that leads nowhere, and finding something genuine anymore is a real struggle, where what you’re left with are posers and great pretenders. From the outset it’s clear Sam doesn’t really have a life, spending his time spying on his neighbors with binoculars, an update on Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) with a trip down memory lane in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), especially when it comes to trippy girls who love to parade around topless on their balconies. Spying an attractive woman in the pool, Sarah (Riley Keough), he’s quickly interrupted from his peeping reverie by a knock at the door, which turns out to be his girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), as they conveniently have quickie sex while his thoughts obviously lie elsewhere, paying a visit to Sarah the pool girl afterwards, who invites him in, apparently to have sex, smoking a little pot before they are interrupted by roommates, one of whom dresses as a pirate (a recurring character that always seems to be around when someone ends up dead or goes missing), with Sarah inviting him back the next day, however she’s completely disappeared, moving out and removing all her things overnight, where all that’s left is a photograph, which he keeps, wondering what became of her. Asking around the neighborhood joints, simply wandering in and out of party scenes, it gives us a clear picture of a thriving subterranean culture, where he assumes the role of a detective searching for a missing person.
The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis is notable, while the symphonic musical score by Disasterpeace feels oddly out of place, overly calm and tranquil, like it’s in the wrong movie, not capturing the subversive edge where this film exists. What we quickly discover is that Sam is a layabout who lies to his mother over the phone pretending he still has a job, though he’s within days of an eviction, where he has a particular fascination for underground comic books, especially the vividly drawn artwork of one entitled Under the Silver Lake which he believes holds essential clues, meeting the deranged author (Patrick Fischler) who seems overly paranoid, even more obsessed with conspiracy theories, including a map drawn on the back of a cereal box, and a fictional comic character known as Owl Woman who nakedly visits men in the night before seducing and murdering them, like a mythical siren, positive this is what lies in store for him. Of course, he’s murdered the next day by a nocturnal visitor that in fact resembles the Owl Woman on the security footage Sam examines. This is the logic of cinema, as fictional characters can become real while actual human beings are more and more fictional, using cinematic references as clues, basically inventing an absurdly surreal narrative style to advance the story, yet what’s missing throughout is anyone that is remotely authentic or real, so it feels more like an imaginary landscape inhabited by ghosts. Using out of the way locations that aren’t often seen in movies, Mitchell does capture a murky world, though he fills his movie with contemptible creatures that don’t really exist but are figments of his imagination, creating a corrosive atmosphere of lingering dread, as there’s a serial dog killer on the loose, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), where an underlying layer of brutality exists throughout, with Sam losing it from time to time, growing explosively violent himself, exaggerated as movie violence, which is basically a caricature of the real thing. And that’s what this entire movie becomes, a caricature of all the movies ever made about Los Angeles, which is a state of mind in and of itself, tapping into old movie references to add interest and allure, where literally anything can happen, as one is not bound by reality, so this one tests the imagination, but never builds to anything that’s all that interesting or emotionally challenging, keeping viewers at a distance, remaining weird and oddly mysterious, somewhat entertaining, but it exists in a fog world that doesn’t exist even while its intentions are to sarcastically poke fun at the realities that do exist. It’s an odd mix, one that few directors even attempt to master. Most recently Aaron Katz took a stab with Gemini (2017), inverting the masculine-fueled film noir world of Los Angeles with a core cast featuring women. For all the circuitous asides, easily the best part of Mitchell’s film is the song playing over the end credits, R.E.M.’s Strange Currencies, R.E.M. - Strange Currencies - YouTube (3:52).