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Under the Silver Lake
★★☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

David Robert Mitchell follows It Follows, his inventive 2014 psychological horror indie, with this ambitious but self-indulgent work of sunshine-neo-noir. Under the Silver Lake stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, a disaffected 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman (Riley Keough) swimming nude in the pool of his apartment complex. When she disappears before he gets a chance to sleep with her, Sam begins a half-interested, pseudo-investigation across a surrealistic LA to unlock the mystery behind this young lady vanished, discovering a multitude of scandals, secrets, and conspiracy theories along the shaggy, roundabout way. 

It Follows was an old-school chiller reminiscent of the early horror films of John Carpenter with a touch of David Lynch and George Romero, but it never came off as mere homage or retro retread. Under the Silver Lake, on the other hand, epitomizes the type of movie that is only really about other movies, filtered through a generational lens. The picture is so deliberately a Hitchcockian, Altmanesque, Lynch-like, Hawksish, Coen-Brothersy, Polanskewed approach to films based on crime novels by Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Thomas Pynchon that it never becomes anything but a reflection on the work of those other artists.  The inability of this film to engage on its own merits has a lot to do with the fact that the main character is such a rudderless, uninteresting dick (and not the “private” kind of dick). He’s alone, jobless, nearly homeless, entitled, cynical, and lacks any drive apart from a mild curiosity about if there’s any meaning in the mysterious patterns and “hidden messages” other people write and speak about. Perhaps he’s just lost his girlfriend, or his parents, or is suffering some sort of debilitating grief, (maybe his dog was killed by the local serial dog-killer)? We never know, since he’s given no backstory. Of course, he’s meant to embody all the qualities of a disengaged, millennial slacker; but with no direction in life and little individual personality, he never feels like much more than a flat stereotype—and he’s the closest we get to an actual character in this movie. 

For everything Mitchell fastidiously appropriates from The Big Sleep, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Mulholland DriveThe Big Lebowski, and a myriad other LA-set film noirs, he seems not to have noticed that each of these movies have compelling main characters who drive the story forward—even Eliot Gould’s take on Philip Marlow in The Long Goodbye, the breeziest of this movie’s many influences, was a pretty determined, funny, and active protagonist. Garfield gives a decent, sometimes even amusing, performance, but Sam is just not an engaging character. Whatever hold the movie manages to have comes from the atmosphere Mitchell creates and all the potentially interesting ideas the movie touches on. These ideas just lay there randomly, which, again, is part of the point, but since there are no actual dots to connect, the “heady trip” this picture is meant to be fails to put you under its spell.

Still, this is a better film than PT Anderson’s 2014 adaptation of the Pynchon novel Inherent Vice, which suffers from most of the same issues but is more pretentious, Under the Silver Lake features a few solid set-pieces and encounters in, one featuring a mysterious songwriter holed up in a mansion like Chandler’s General Sternwood. And there’s a darkly fun spin on Chinatown’s theme of the wealthy 1% owning “the future.” But none of these sequences, idiosyncratic characters, and meticulously recreated movie references adds up to a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Twitter Capsule:
Mitchell's sunshine-neo-noir about a disaffected millennial unravelling mysteries leans heavily on references to other LA-set crime movies but forgets the key ingredient that made all those pictures so great: a compelling main character.

Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Produced by Michael De Luca, Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, and Adele Romanski

Written by David Robert Mitchell

With: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez, Don McManus, Jeremy Bobb, Riki Lindhome, Zosia Mamet, Patrick Fischler, and India Menuez

Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
Editing: Julio Perez IV
Music: Disasterpeace

Runtime: 139 min
Release Date: 19 April 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color