Cinematic Releases: Under the Silver Lake (2018) - Reviewed

Late into Under the Silver Lake, the long-awaited return of writer-director David Robert Mitchell after his 2014 indie-horror smash hit It Follows, paranoid conspiracy theorist Sam (Andrew Garfield) remarks upon a recent discovery in the film’s labyrinthine timeline ‘what the f**k am I supposed to do with this?’.  Evidently, after it’s polarizing 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere, production company and distributor A24 asked themselves the same question and pushed the film’s release date back nearly a year before giving it a miniscule theatrical release followed by dumping it on-demand three days later.  

Given the pedigree of it’s writer-director and the high-profile cast involved, everyone began wondering whether or not Mitchell unleashed a misunderstood masterpiece or meandering masturbatory tripe.  Having finally sat through the film’s ponderous, near two-and-a-half hour running time down one endless rabbit hole after another, I regret to inform Mr. Robert Mitchell may have disappeared far up his own ass.

Set in Los Angeles sometime in 2011, Under the Silver Lake finds directionless loser Sam on the verge of being evicted from his apartment, but that doesn’t stop him from casual sexual encounters with numerous women before setting his sights on his beautiful new neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough).  After bonding over weed and kisses, Sam goes home only to find Sarah and her roommates have mysteriously vanished without a trace, setting in motion a breadcrumb trail of homegrown sleuthing loaded with increasingly bizarre red herrings and coded messages connected to everything and nothing.  

Reuniting with cinematographer Michael Gioulakis and electronic musician Disasterpeace with a score which sounds like a frank imitation of Angelo Badalamenti’s neo-noir soundtrack for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Mitchell tosses in everything but the kitchen sink when he isn’t loudly wearing his influences on his sleeves.  Despite the film’s strong central lead and the technical brilliance on full display in every carefully crafted panoramic widescreen vista, Under the Silver Lake tragically meanders from one confounding scenario to the next.  

Touching on bizarre threads which go nowhere involving a dog killer, an otherworldly naked woman in an owl mask, an elderly man claiming to have written every song and piece of music under the sun and a religious cult buried deep underground, somehow it all something to do with a magazine bearing the film’s title, a cereal box, The Legend of Zelda and Kurt Cobain’s Fender Mustang.  If this sounds like the absurdist cockamamie of writer-director Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales filtered through the stoned prism of Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, you’re probably giving Under the Silver Lake too much credit.

In a recent Vulture interview, David Robert Mitchell describes the film as ‘a mystery and there are mysteries inside of that mystery, and some of the characters could be considered mysteries themselves.  Will I explain any of them?  No.’  Further still, the film’s endless myriad of impenetrable coded messages no doubt inspired a sub-Reddit cult attempting to decrypt the film’s meaning, much to Mitchell’s delight who remarked ‘its nice to hear people are seeing some of the layers’.  

Whether you come away feeling enthralled by the unfolding of unresolved riddles and ambiguities or close your hand on thin air, one thing is for sure, Under the Silver Lake is utterly in love with itself and is the work of a still-gifted auteur who began to believe his own press clippings with even greater fervor than the film’s hero.  I’m of the belief the mind behind The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows can and will make another cinematic field goal but I would be lying if I said he didn’t fumble the ball hard this time around.

- Andrew Kotwicki