After only two films one thing is clear: filmmaker David Robert Mitchell is good at establishing a setting, a sense of place. From the ragged Detroit of It Follows to the sunny oddities of Los Angeles, Mitchell’s got his finger on the pulse of whatever city his characters happen to be traversing, and his characters often do. They often hoof it across town, via alleyways and barren thorough-ways, in search of clues as to what is haunting them. With Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell has crafted a satire that convinces an audience into believing it’s not a satire. Rarely funny and willfully obtuse, it’s not for everyone yet it’s about everyman 2019, the aimless thirty-something stoner with a straight-on for the strange girl next door and a hankering for mystery in his life.
Andrew Garfield makes the unlikable likable. Sure, he bloodies the nose of a poor wee kid and ogles women like he ain’t got a girlfriend (he sorta does), but the kid gleefully keyed his man-mobile and, well, he’s Andrew Garfield. His sheepish smile, lanky gait, and surfer locks make it difficult to regard him as just another paranoid loser. His Sam becomes infatuated with an alluring neighbor (Riley Keough) overnight and, upon her sudden disappearance, goes on the prowl across L.A. looking for her and into all manner of cockamamie plots and morbid conspiracies. There’s hobo code, a serial dog-killer, an owl-lady urban legend, a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, and a slew of hidden messages strewn across Hollywood and pop culture at large. There’s even a helluva left-turn into Hollywood hell, where Sam becomes that one thing every actor, writer, singer, songwriter, or filmmaker can attest to hating: the toxic fan, the man who claims ownership of that art they consume.
Though wildly different and sometimes inscrutable, Silver Lake is terrific fun in a National Treasure-kinda way, believe it or not. As an audience member it’s always a gas following one character on one increasingly radical adventure involving maps, clues, and more bizarre detours than you’d expect. More than anything, Silver Lake captures L.A. better than any film in recent memory, no matter the non sequiturs or mixed messages. Mitchell’s film may be stylistically messy, overusing faders and under-using needle drops, but his eye for the City of Angels is rich, colorful, and amusing. Painting the town as a menagerie of hustlers, oddballs, and debutantes, his story weaves in and out of dog parks, film screenings, and hipper-than-thou parties, be it underground or over chess. It’s overly convoluted and I didn’t mind too much. It’s hard to care when narrative shenanigans are so delightfully weird.
While ruminating on everything from toxic fandom to paranoid delusion, Under the Silver Lake is a tapestry of life in Southland, and a truly ambitious stab at creating something better served ten years from now. Ultimately too long and even indulgent, Mitchell is nonetheless a filmmaker I will continue to follow, for his skills and mind’s eye are undoubtedly unique. His La La Noir is an unfunny satire occasionally elevated to great heights via one likable actor (make that two if you dig a fedora-wearing Topher Grace), one fascinating theme, and many fun dives among the glitzy and chintzy people and places of L.A.