Director David Robert Mitchell first burst to cinematic prominence with The Myth of the American Sleep Over in 2010. Four years later he took a stylistic 180 degree turn with the art horror film It Follows which has, arguably, influenced every horror film since. Tuesday night his latest creation, Under the Silver Lake, debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and with yet another dramatic pivot proving that above all, Mitchell is a stylistic chameleon. Whether he’s a great screenwriter, though, still remains to be seen.
It’s almost impossible to know where to start with Silver Lake. Mitchell has a vision, but he also seems to have a number of competing visions he hopes will tie into a larger incrimination on Hollywood and the influence of media. It’s simply a lot and that’s not a quick take exaggeration. At its narrative core, however, Silver Lake is a mystery and certainly one that partially keeps your attention despite the distractions or numerous red herrings Mitchell throws along the way (enough for a drinking game, no less).
Our hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), is living a lazy life on the East Side of Los Angeles although for anyone unfamiliar with LA his apartment complex is actually in the Atwater Village neighborhood of the city, not Silverlake proper (and there might be a weekly poker game we attend on that block too). He becomes infatuated with his beautiful new neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough, popping like a beacon of charisma in one movie after another at this festival), who lives with two other girls in an apartment directly across from him. They spend a few hours hanging out together one evening and then poof! The next day she’s gone. Her roommates, their furniture, everything. His landlord informs him they just moved out in the middle of the night even forfeiting their deposit. Despite what was only brief interaction with her, this is absolutely perplexing to Sam and he’s driven to find her.
A mystery over Sarah’s vanishing would be too easy for Mitchell and he introduces a number of competing threads seemingly related to her departure. There’s the dog killer rampaging the neighborhood. There’s the strange disappearance of a local celebrity. There’s Sam’s obsession with hidden lyrics in music. The comic book artist (Patrick Fischler) who writes the “Under the Silver Lake” zine that fuels Sam with vast media conspiracy theories and supposed curses on the neighborhood. There’s the escort service for actresses who can’t survive on that one indie movie gig alone. There’s a Homeless King (David Yow) and an actress (Riki Lindhome) who comes by to screw Sam a few times and then completely disappears from the movie. Private party clubs underneath the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, smelly skunks, and so much more.
Don’t worry, that’s barely spoiled anything. At 2 hours and 19 min we might have only scratched the surface of Mitchell’s ambitions and we could have easily written 2400 words on this film as opposed to 1200.
The Michigan born filmmaker has set his tale in Los Angeles, but the entire endeavor feels mildly contemporary at best. Reuniting with his It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and composer Disasterpeace they have (mostly) fashioned a classic Hollywood movie aesthetic with soaring orchestrations and framing that often evokes directors of the ‘50s and early ‘60s (and, pointedly, the male gaze they concocted that is still omnipresent today). In fact, when Mitchell tries to introduce anything truly contemporary beyond an iPhone it seems starkly out of place because there is so little realism in the film to begin with. Even the televised news reports that are peppered here and there feel like they’re from another era (besides, who under 60 watches the local news on the East Side?). But old Hollywood? Decades past when the town made films such as How to Marry a Millionaire or a black and white stunner such as Seventh Heaven? That’s when the Silver Lake’s surreal hand starts to grab you.
Mitchell also peppers the film with familiar faces filling roles you wouldn’t expect. Topher Grace is almost unrecognizable as Sam’s bar friend who evokes the clichéd bearded look that peppers most of LA (you’d say hipster four or five years ago, but not in 2018). Zosia Mamet is a sexy ingenue who might know something about Sarah’s whereabouts, but you barely know it’s her with that intense black eyeshadow seemingly masking her identity. Jimmi Simpson is a nightlife party promotor (or something to that effect) with a unique style Mitchell apparently has some disdain for. But one of the film’s many themes is that things are hardly what they seem, and these are all specific choices by Mitchell.
If it wasn’t clear earlier, before Silver Lake is awarded the label of a “quintessential LA movie” it should be noted this isn’t really a film about Silverlake or the East Side at all. It’s about the larger fantasy of the Hollywood dream and this little pocket of mostly white hanger-ons that help Mitchell tell his story. There are barely any people of color to be found and not one gay soul either. And their absence is simply too hard to ignore when Mitchell is working on such a large and sprawling canvass.
Because so much is at play it almost goes without saying that the film might fall apart without Garfield’s gung-ho performance. Mitchell provides us few details on who Sam really is. We know he loves his mother and he had a devastating breakup in his recent past, but not much beyond that. Why is he unemployed? How did he get his nice apartment in the first place? How was he paying his rent? Why does he have so few friends? You’ll have to speculate. He’s often presented as just an obsessive character constantly infatuated with beautiful women and whatever conspiracy he secretly has running through his head. Garfield finds a way to give Sam a depth that isn’t in the script and find compassion for him even when it isn’t deserved.
As Sam seemingly gets closer to determining Sarah’s fate the film somehow gets even more trippy, evoking – intentionally or not – earlier works set in the city by David Lynch and Richard Kelly. And, at worst, it’s now obvious that Mitchell’s talent lies with his eye and he fashions some striking images that will absolutely haunt you. That’s no easy feat considering how much is packed into Silver Lake to begin with. It also hampers Mitchell’s achievement because he doesn’t quite realize when to stop. He has so many ideas on how to convey his thesis they all begin to overshadow one another. This is where Mitchell’s directing prowess cannot compensate when his screenwriting skills fall short.
And yet, when it all comes together at the end he finds a way – in large part thanks to Garfield – to make you care. And if you consider the long, almost hallucinatory ride you’ve been on up until that point it does make you step back and wonder. Throw in the fact you’ll likely still be thinking about it six months from now? Well, that might make Silver Lake just remarkable enough.