David Robert Mitchell proved he could deliver an original vision within the parameters of genre rules with 2015’s “It Follows.” Now, with “Under the Silver Lake” (2019), he lets loose with a passion project. At 2 hours and 19 minutes, it’s long and slow, but it’s also mesmerizingly strange and creepy. Similar to my favorite horror film of the year, “Midsommar,” this one remains fathomable even as it gets weirder.
Writer-director Mitchell has a knack for turning universal but odd fears into great cinema. His surrogate here is Sam (Andrew Garfield of the “Amazing Spider-Man”s), who at one point asks his friend (Topher Grace) if he ever feels like he should’ve amounted to more in the world. The friend says everybody feels that way. But Sam really feels that way.
As Sam searches for The Meaning Of It All, he’s also jobless and close to being evicted, yet not particularly concerned about it. It’s like he’s on a drug trip even during the parts of the film when he’s not strictly on a drug trip.
It seems like Garfield got out of bed every day and skipped wardrobe, hair and makeup. I kind of felt like chastising Sam for not even being concerned about getting a job, but at the same time, I felt a level of jealousy for the pseudo-freedom he gains from not caring. I couldn’t decide if he’s likeable or unlikeable – but I lean toward the former.
Despite its underlying philosophical grandeur, “Under the Silver Lake” has a surprisingly accessible mystery. It starts with the sudden disappearance of Sam’s apartment complex neighbor, Riley Keough’s modern hippie Sarah. She had told Sam they’d meet up the next day, but then her apartment is empty when he stops by.
What follows is a darker answer to “Ready Player One” (2018), with Sam finding clues to who is running civilization — and how they are doing it – via things like cereal-box maps, hobo codebooks and hidden messages in pop songs.
There’s also some “It Follows”-style body horror, with a nude owl-masked woman stalking around. And comparisons to “Midsommar” can’t be helped as the narrative progresses.
Mitchell gives us a lot of ideas to chew on. The notion that the rich and successful live in some secret world with its own hidden communications is tantalizing. This is why I grew to like, or at least sympathize with, Sam: I wanted answers just as he does.
Along the same lines, women are cast in ephemeral, almost incomprehensible roles through Sam’s eyes. It starts with Sarah’s disappearance and continues with more women who Sam meets yet can’t quite get to know – and they don’t quite answer his questions about Sarah. Grace Van Patten, Bobbi Salvor Menuez and Zosia Mamet give effectively inaccessible turns.
Garfunkel & Oates’ Riki Lindhome mostly operates in the real world as Sam’s girlfriend, but even she is always dressed up as a sexy nurse, having just come from an acting gig.
“Under the Silver Lake” gets away with its long run time and slow pace by giving us loads of style. Sam drives around town, trailing another car, like James Stewart’s Scottie in “Vertigo.” Disasterpeace delivers Hitchcockian suspense music here, but he thoughtfully peppers various styles throughout the film, from video-game beats to bombastic silent-film scores.
The lens of Mike Gioulakis makes Silver Lake look beautiful yet culturally bland – as if the “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” excitement of the Los Angeles area only gets turned on if you’re on a streak of landing good roles. If you’re jobless or only landing gigs for pennies, there’s an evocative emptiness to the area.
I wouldn’t recommend “Under the Silver Lake” to everyone. I can see it being too slow and sparse for some people. Whether or not you enjoy it might even depend on your mood at that very moment. Even when viewed with patience, I’m not sure the film benefits from being so long.
Still, Mitchell has now fully proven himself as a filmmaker with original visions, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.