by Ken Bakely
It’s beside the point to start by deconstructing the finer points of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. The film is such an intentional ooze of ideas, such a pop art collage of zeitgeist montage, that it would cause less confusion to think of it first as an overarching experience. The noir trappings of the story are where we begin, in a mystified version of Los Angeles, where idle conspiracy theorist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is attempting to locate Sarah (Riley Keough), a neighbor who vanishes without a trace. Sam’s belief that everything is connected, and that abstract clues planted throughout media and society contain confidential communications to specific audiences, leads to him painstakingly analyze everything he witnesses for hidden meanings. The kaleidoscopic quest leads him from the mysterious murder of a billionaire, to subliminal messages in rock music (surely the long-held culmination of every suburban parent’s paranoia in the 1980s), to a long-held secret over how said messages actually came to be. Mitchell connects the dots with rapid zigzags, combining these elements with dozens more left unmentioned in this review. But at the same time, it’s all a bit shaggy-dog in execution. Through a combination of intentional overstuffing and the surely unintentional fatigue that comes as a result of such an unfocused, stream-of-consciousness style, everything and nothing seems to matter at once, where the clearest thing you have left is a fantastically game performance from Garfield amidst rambling backdrops.
That’s the aforementioned overarching experience of watching this movie, and at some level, maybe the sheer audacity of Mitchell’s approach carries it a long way to the finish line. We’re stunned by the variety of sources and themes he explores. He always does so with a bemused wink, cognizant of the absurdity of mixing hazy characterization with manic conspiracy theories that deliberately cross through the boundaries of feasibility and end up more as parodies of tinfoil hatting than anything else. Michael Gioulakis’s cinematography deals in extremes – deep blue wide angles during an underwater scene, completely vertical shots regarding an object in a character’s hands, and lurid looks through candy-colored setpieces in city nightscapes or clubs – plunging us into a world where everything is felt at levels beyond comfort or nuance. The irony of Sam’s discovery that everything he encounters is intimately connected is that it happens in a movie where everything is so overwhelming at the point of reception that sometimes the actual connections of the script are lost on us. Mitchell knows how to create a tight story with clear themes, as his previous film, It Follows, demonstrated. Under the Silver Lake may share that movie’s aesthetic idiosyncrasies and command of tone, but it struggles to create a united philosophy or approach that coordinates the lengthy series of scattershot scenarios that we’re subject to. Just as Sam is depicted as living a pitiful life without a job, lasting human relationships, or any real sense of order – his pursuits of conspiracies are what make him a main character and not a mere collection of urban millennial tropes – the movie is similarly listless in structure, which makes its energy in execution all the more enigmatic (or contradictory).
On the other hand, perhaps the feelings are actually the extent of it. Considering all that is journeyed through over the course of this sprawling odyssey, it’s possible that Mitchell’s open and wild experiment might add up to whatever each individual viewer can make of it. But that doesn’t complete the film in a palpable way, nor does it give Under the Silver Lake’s plotting an impact beyond serving as a capsule of trends and surface-level cultural criticism, no matter how ambitious its delivery or accomplished its technical prospects. It’s easy to see it with cult classic potential, discussed with the same intensity of conviction that Sam has for tearing through back issues of video game magazines looking for clues. Under such circumstances, it might go on to serve as a self-reflexive work, but even if so, it’s not because of anything that it could have reasonably foreseen or worked into its being on a foundational level. It’s telling that discussion of this movie so instinctively turns to trying to crack the code of its underlying aspirations as a piece of art, since it’s a movie framed around themes of analysis for analysis’s sake. And there, another conflict lies: it can’t help but work off the inherent silliness of seeing Sam fall to bits over the wild goose chase he’s embarked on, but it also assumes from the start that there must be something waiting for him at the end, creating an imprecise feel. In that sense, maybe it’s not actually prepared to germinate self-reflexiveness. Under the Silver Lake’s long and winding road turns out to be a loop, stuck in a labyrinthine world of endangered bodies and multiple meanings. We witness it all over and over again, but a clarified destination or resolution remains perpetually elusive.