DIR/WRI: David Robert Mitchell• PRO: Chris Bender, Michael De Luca, Adele Romanski, Jake Weiner • DOP: Mike Gioulakis • ED: Julio Perez IV • DES: Michael Perry • MUS: Disasterpeace • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace
Is it impressive that Under the Silver Lake manages to be a lot stranger than the trailer implies (and the trailer is quite odd in and of itself). I don’t know if that’s impressive, but I feel it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes trailers these days don’t give away the whole movie, which is something to admire. If this seems like faint praise, it sort of is. Because while an attempt to make something Pynchon-esque yet more accessible for the screen is in and of itself far from unwelcome, director David Robert Mitchell’s over-indulgent run-time and some undercooked storylines mean it is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
Andrew Garfield’s Sam is an aimless young slacker living in L.A. whose money is just about to run out. He spends much of his time in Rear Window fashion, spying on his female neighbours in his condo and engaging in conspiracy theories. After encountering a mysterious new women, Sarah (Riley Keogh), at the swimming pool, Sam falls for her and spends the evening with her, only to discover the next morning that she and her roommates have all left in the night. Wondering whether her disappearance has anything to do with the recent sudden death of a local billionaire or a prophetic zine, Sam starts following clues which lead him into the underworld (occasionally literally) of Hollywood.
While not without some enjoyable sleuthing for both the protagonist and audience, Sam’s character is perhaps a microcosm of the film’s problems as a whole. We never really get a strong sense of what exactly Sam believes beyond the fact that he, um, thinks that pop culture has secret messages embedded in it that are meant for rich people. Yeah. This admittedly could be a good starting point for a character (or indeed a movie), but requires a lot more fleshing out to become something interesting. As it is, the central mystery of the film feels similarly like a bare-bones outline of a finished work, with a whole load of unnecessary red herrings thrown in (to take my example above, I feel I was being rather charitable in comparing the film to Rear Window. Quite frankly, Sam’s just a Peeping Tom). Where Mitchell’s film is more successful in evoking its competing themes of anxiety and nostalgia for twentieth-century popular culture is in its visuals and soundtrack: aesthetically impressive and gorgeously edited, Under the Silver Lake certainly feels appropriately neo-noirish as Sam wanders around in a fugue of Los Angeles-tinged uncertainty.
It’s also disappointing to see how Under the Silver Lake under-uses its cast beyond Garfield. Garfield himself is hugely likeable (arguably more than the character should be) and capable as a protagonist who could easily have been unforgettable as an author or audience surrogate and as such is hugely pivotal in maintaining engagement in the film. However, beyond Garfield the impressive supporting cast are almost all reduced to glorified cameos, with Topher Grace, Jimmi Simpson and Laura-Leigh Clare appearing in only in a small number of scenes. Particularly glaring is Zosia Mamet’s Troy, seemingly Sam’s friend with benefits who, despite featuring heavily in the first half of the film, is not seen again.
While Under the Silver Lake may be well-intentioned in its attempt to explore the dark underbelly of the American movie business, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it attributes so little agency to the victims of the Hollywood Machine. The gone girl supposedly at the centre of the tale is not so much a character in her own right but an excuse for the protagonist to indulge in his nostalgia, something we’ve seen far too often. To the film’s credit there are some wonderfully zany moments which should pique interests throughout (and in particular a short-lived horror villain which will probably give me nightmares). On the other hand, it’s hard to know whether the film’s scattergun approach works overall (I refuse to believe that R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency?” is anyone’s dance number). Perhaps the most surprising part of this Hollywood puzzler is just how conventional it is.