By Chris Nashawaty
April 18, 2019 at 07:49 PM EDT
Credit: A24

Back in 2015, David Robert Mitchell burst onto the Hollywood scene with It Follows. It was a dazzlingly creepy horror movie that was made with a small budget but contained a big metaphorical sex-equals-death idea at its core. Of course, tons of ’80s slasher flicks tilled that particular plot of thematic soil before Mitchell came along, but few had the same combination of style and wit. Its retro, synth-heavy score and fetishistic visual detail didn’t hurt either.

Now, four years later, the writer-director has returned with his eagerly awaited follow-up: the paranoia-drenched, through-the-looking-glass L.A. neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. And while Mitchell’s talent still jumps (hell, it does one-handed look-at-me cartwheels) off the screen, his new film is crammed with so many wiggy, WTF ideas that he seems to have overwhelmed himself. He’s made a hipster conspiracy thriller about a guy who goes so far down an existential rabbit hole that it sucked Mitchell down with him. It’s an overstuffed mess of a film that’s so bonkers it really shouldn’t work (and for a lot of people, I suspect, it won’t). But damned if I wasn’t hanging on every bizarro twist and switchback he pulled out of his hat next.

Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a disheveled, down-and-out layabout who’s on the verge of getting evicted from his ratty Silver Lake apartment. Sam mostly sits around on his patio smoking Marlboro reds, drinking beer, and spying on his neighbors. One in particular catches his eye — a blonde dreamboat in a sun hat with a fluffy white dog and the kind of smile that has doomed film noir saps like Sam to oblivion since the 1940s. Her name is Sarah, and Riley Keough plays her with just the right mix of seductive mystery and save-me vulnerability. From their first encounter, he’s a goner. And, it turns out, that first encounter is all there will be. Because the next day, she vanishes without a trace.

Finding her will become both Sam’s obsession and the first pulled thread of his unraveling sanity for the next two-plus shambling hours. Or, I should say, one of his obsessions. Because as Sam follows the trail of breadcrumbs that may or may not reunite him with Sarah, the amateur sleuth stumbles into an after-hours world of occultish clues, codes, semiotics, and numerology all hiding in plain sight as pop-culture flotsam and jetsam. If only he could figure out what it all means….

Watching Under the Silver Lake, it’s obvious that Mitchell is as much of an obsessive as his slacker hero. Except his compulsion is cinema. He overloads the film with allusions and nods (and outright sledgehammers over the head) to Hollywood masters old and new. The skeleton of the plot is clearly inspired by Hitchcock classics like Rear Window and Vertigo (as is Disasterpeace’s swelling, melodramatic Bernard Herrmann-esque music). Meanwhile, Sam is one pet cat away from easily being the tossed-and-tousled grandson of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. And the film’s barrage of dream-logic surrealism should pay royalties to the Lost Highway-era David Lynch.

Like a bit from Bill Hader’s Saturday Night Live alter ego Stefon, Under the Silver Lake has everything: a mystical homeless guide to the underworld wearing a Burger King crown; a band whose songs contain subliminal messages named Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; a menagerie of femme fatales clad in bathing suits, bobby socks, and burlesque balloons; missing billionaires, coyotes, skunks, and talking parrots. All these drive-by oddities only confound Sam more. The closest thing he has to a roadmap is a portentous undergound zine called Under the Silver Lake, which tries to warn Angelenos about serial dog killers on the prowl and naked female assassins in owl masks. Still with me?

If you’re not, it’s totally understandable. (It may also explain why the film’s release has been delayed twice and it will pop up on VOD less than a week after it opens in theaters.) After all, Under the Silver Lake is not for everyone — especially the impatient. Whether all its cereal-prize symbolism, illuminati-adjacent mysticism, and ill-fitting puzzle pieces come together for you is purely a matter of taste. But no matter how shaggy and self-indulgent it is, or how anticlimactic its big so-what of an ending ends up being, I was never bored. More than that, I kind of dug its sheer swing-for-the-fences insanity. B

More movie reviews:

Under the Silver Lake

  • Movie