In Under the Silver Lake, the protagonist Sam, played by a perpetually-perplexed looking Andrew Garfield, is an unemployed slacker who smokes Marlboro Reds, watches TCM movies that his mom recorded on VHS and plays 32-bit era Nintendo with his goateed buddy (Topher Grace). He sleeps beneath a signed poster of Kurt Cobain, reads zines and keeps comic books and a vintage Playboy on his bedside table.
Basically, he’s every dude who lived in Silver Lake or Echo Park (which the film frustratingly misnomers as “East Los Angeles”) in 1997. All that’s missing is a Thomas Guide, a tattered copy of City of Quartz, and a Windows version of Final Draft.
So why is Sam such a throwback in this contemporary film? That’s one of the many mysteries in a movie that prides itself on being amiably inscrutable, to an often fascinating, yet occasionally tiresome, effect.
My theory is that Under the Silver Lake is exactly the kind of movie all those Silver Lake boys fantasized about making back then as they skimmed The Recycler over espresso and a Cubano at Café Tropical. It’s almost comically ambitious, wearing its reverence for Hitchcock and David Lynch on the sleeve of its flannel shirt, and is filled with topless women presented in a manner that’s meant to call attention to the toxicity of the male gaze. Or at least that’s how the sensitive fella who thought of it would explain it over PBRs at the Good Luck Bar. (RIP.)
Garfield is in the role that Kyle McLachlan would play if Papa Lynch were in charge. He is smitten with a Bichon Frise-toting, summer hat-wearing Hitchcock blonde (Riley Keough) after they watch How to Marry A Millionaire in her apartment over a game of footsie. When she disappears without a trace the next day and then apparently perishes in a fiery car crash that involves a prominent Hollywood producer and philanthropist, Sam decides to uncover the mystery of what happened.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE ★★ 1/2
His investigation leads him to a rock band called Jesus and the Vampire Brides, a map hidden in plain sight on the back of an old cereal box, and Hitchcock’s grave at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Whether Hitch is rolling over down there or just having a good laugh is a matter of debate.)
It’s oddly intoxicating to watch the always compelling Garfield gather clues during his unlikely adventure, like some solo Hardy boy; this is especially true once we learn that the puzzle he is piecing together threatens to unravel the very fabric of pop culture.
Part of the film’s strange spell is weaved in the way it references its predecessors; Patrick Fischler, who played the frightened man in Winkie’s Diner in the famous scene from Mulholland Drive, appears as a conspiracy theorist who spins tales of a ghost that slaughters dogs and a naked woman in an owl mask who seduces and murders. But just as much is achieved by its technical elements, including the vibrant camerawork of DP Michael Gioulakis (Jordan Peele’s Us) and—most profoundly—the swelling symphonic score composed by Disasterpeace, who worked with writer-director David Robert Mitchell on 2014’s It Follows.
Under the Silver Lake becomes measurably less intriguing as the story weaves itself towards its conclusion. The goofy questions that are posited (my favorite: “Why do you have dog biscuits in your pockets?”) are generally more fun than the quasi-serious answers. The film tries a little too hard to be weird and trippy: this is a movie where every time the hero eats a cookie or sips some tea, it ends up being laced—surprise, surprise—with LSD. It’s also about 20 minutes longer than it should be.
Nonetheless, there is something refreshing about Mitchell’s playful approach to Los Angeles’ sordid history of cults and murders, as well as the high and low pop culture and marketing that America’s second largest city manufactures. At its best, Under the Silver Lake feels like somebody has dumped out a toy chest filled with Vertigo and Fire Walk with Me action figures on the floor and spent the day goofing around and coming up with outlandish stories. As long as the film maintains this impish approach and doesn’t get too bogged down by the weight of its ambitions, Under the Silver Lake remains a long strange stroll worth taking.