Fantastic Fest Review: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE’s noir atmosphere can’t rescue its water-logged plot
If you live in Los Angeles (in certain Hollywood-adjacent neighborhoods, anyway), you’ve met a guy or two like the main character in David Robert Mitchell’s ambitious yet ultimately underwhelming UNDER THE SILVER LAKE: He’s always in between creative jobs, he lives in an apartment he can’t really afford (covered in classic film posters), he likes to imagine he’s a character in the Raymond Chandler books he’s always toting around and reading at diner counters, and he’s good at telling women exactly what they want to hear (at least until he ghosts them or they find out he already “sorta kinda” has a serious girlfriend).
We never find out exactly what 30-something Sam (Andrew Garfield, game here to play a completely unlikable character) does for a living, but it doesn’t really matter: He doesn’t actually do much of anything, other than jerk off, evade his landlord, crash hipster rooftop art parties, dream up elaborate conspiracy theories based off of maps he finds in cereal boxes, play old Nintendo games, and spy on the many women living in his Silverlake apartment complex (yes, there are a lot of Hitchcock references to endure). In other words, he doesn’t really have to clear his schedule to investigate the sudden disappearance of a mysterious blonde neighbor he’d been attempting to sleep with.
Said neighbor’s disappearance—which may or not be linked with a series of dog murders happening around Silverlake, which may or may not be connected to some sprawling conspiracy documented in a series of zines written by a paranoid recluse—is interesting enough on the surface. Unfortunately Garfield’s character is the only one the film bothers to even sort of flesh out; he’s otherwise surrounded by beautiful starry-eyed young women just dying—literally and otherwise—to have sex with him. Yes, Riley Keough and Zosia Mamet are here, and they’re fine, but they’re stuck in window-treatment roles that could have just as easily gone to extras, given how little they’re asked to do in their scenes. (That’s just one thing SILVER LAKE has in common with last year’s stylish but vacuous L.A. neo-noir GEMINI, which wasted John Cho in a ridiculously brief bit part.)
As with his previous film, IT FOLLOWS, Mitchell—working again with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis—brings plenty of texture and atmosphere to the proceedings, which keeps the film interesting long after that central thread has gone off the rails and lead Sam on a wild hunt all over L.A. Going off the rails and forcing the audience to keep up can be fun and provocative, but few filmmakers do it well (see Paul Thomas Anderson and his superior version of this film, INHERENT VICE, or most of David Lynch’s filmography). Here, it comes across as a bit undisciplined, as if a frustrated screenwriter threw together three or four incomplete ideas and expects the audience to fill in the gaps for him and hopefully mistake laziness for genius.
It’s difficult to make a film that’s critical of Hollywood while working within the system (unless you’re, say, Billy Wilder), and that’s part of the problem. SILVER LAKE never seems quite sure of where its sympathies lie, and its tone never gets dark enough to pull off the existential noir it so desperately wants to be.
Opening Photo: A24