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Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

An ambitious and intoxicating trip into Tinseltown from the director who gave us 'It Follows'.
Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

Image: Andy Garfield is the shambling slacker on a twisty quest in Under Silver Lake.

In Under the Silver Lake, Los Angeles’ denizens roam through glitzy parties, dark alleys and underground caverns, trying to decipher the city’s secrets. This description not only applies to scruffy stoner protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield), but to writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sprawling, surreal and seductive film itself — an ambitious and intoxicating, winking and nodding detective story that ponders the significance and meaning so eagerly ascribed to Tinseltown’s dream factory.

Here, a catchy pop song isn’t just a pop song. When a silent film star’s name comes up in conversation, connections to her life and work soon pop up everywhere. Indie zines tell of grim urban myths that seem to be coming true, and everything from episodes of Wheel of Fortune to old cereal boxes to stacks of magazines are filled with codes. A rooftop pool party — the kind filled with bikini-clad aspiring starlets and staged around balloon-popping performance art — is one of LA’s many rabbit holes. Griffith Observatory, the facility so famously immortalised by the James Dean-starring Rebel Without a Cause, is another. Of course it is.

After breaking out with 2014 horror film It Follows, which charted a sexually transmitted supernatural entity that stalks suburban teens, Mitchell’s third feature initially seems like a sharp turn into different territory — an indulgent epic crafted by an emboldened rising star, made on a considerably larger scale, and aiming high but crashing fast. At least that was the general consensus when Under the Silver Lake premiered at Cannes last year, to a less than rapturous response. But Mitchell’s third release is another monster movie, of sorts. Posters and references to old creature features abound, as the deliciously delirious and amusing film ponders today’s biggest, shiniest, most insidious, all-consuming influence. Once again skewering and subverting tropes to make his own statement, the filmmaker swaps sins of the flesh for unthinking pop culture worship. Of course, given Hollywood’s penchant for skimpy outfits, sins of the flesh still make an appearance.

Whiling away his days spying on his neighbours from his eastside balcony, unemployed, about-to-be-evicted slacker Sam first sees Sarah (Riley Keough) through his binoculars. She splashes around in the communal pool with her adorable bichon frise by her side, he watches on from afar, and the film paints a simple but effective picture of Tinseltown’s leering, peering, superficially obsessed status quo. They later cross paths properly, getting high while watching How to Marry a Millionaire and leaving Sam wanting more. Alas, the next day when he returns to Sarah’s door, her apartment is unexpectedly, suspiciously empty. His only clues: a mysterious marking on the wall and a sinister girl gang leader (Zosia Mamet), who he swiftly starts following across town.

As spectacularly led by the wonderfully shambling Garfield, so it is that a guy sets off on a twisty quest after seeing a girl twice and actually spending time with her just once. Many a movie has chronicled the same course, which is partly the point. While Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the ridiculousness of his premise, he’s not simply satirising it either — and nor is he just gleefully, sneeringly lambasting his adopted home or the industry he works in. Under the Silver Lake is his version of the secret history of LA movie and of Californian noir in general, but with equal parts thrills and comedy, and made with an abundance of self-awareness. Fuelled by a long and diverse list of influences that spans Chinatown, Vertigo, The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, Mulholland Drive and Inherent Vice, it’s his meta take on a different genre, just as It Follows was with horror.

It wouldn’t work if Mitchell didn’t have such a flair for the material — for the necessary shagginess of his narrative, which ambles around like its main character; for the City of Angels’ in both its gleaming splendour and dark intrigue; and for calling out a society and a specific generation that have shaped their lives around the manufactured, elitist and vacuous. And it definitely wouldn’t work if he wasn’t so cognisant of the many contradictions layered into his vivid world, or so willing to both point them out and revel in them. Stacking Under the Silver Lake’s frames with nods to everything from Hitchcock to Garfield’s Spider-Man days (with an extra nudge via fellow web-slinging alumni Topher Grace), and pairing cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ gleaming images with an orchestral, 50s-style score by Disasterpiece, Mitchell knows the joys of finding substance in a song, film or show. Displaying his fanboy protagonist’s violent side, marking him with skunk spray so that everyone flees from his presence, and pondering the toxicity and meaninglessness of empty idolatry, he also sees the bigger picture. Taking the plunge into Hollywood’s allure and ills in tandem, the end result is exactly what it’s meant to be: a trip.

4 stars


Under the Silver Lake

Director: David Robert Mitchell

US, 2018, 139 mins

Release date: Next screening at the Gold Coast Film Festival (April 3 - 14) on  Thursday 11 April, with a general release in Australia on 20 June through Umbrella.                              

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 9 April, 2019

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay