Under the Silver Lake ★★★★½

What It Follows was to the coming-of-age narrative, Under the Silver Lake is to hitting middle age. And therefore Under the Silver Lake is wrongly evaluated as a film noir story, the same way It Follows was primarily viewed as a horror film (although it's a fantastic horror film). Don't get me wrong; this is definitely a noir tale. But those parts of the film are in service to the larger narrative, not the other way around.

If I were to lay money on who the next Great American Auteur will be, I'd put at least some of it on David Robert Mitchell. More than anything, Under the Silver Lake is proof that he's not a fluke. The same eye that he uses to capture more than a sex monster in It Follows is employed here to echo this generation's great unease. Andrew Garfield is perfectly cast here as the avatar of the newly-minted thirtysomething, inhabiting a world in which he will find no quarter, surrounded by the trappings of success and wealth that will grow continually further away the longer time passes. And how better to tell that story than bringing the outsider perspective to Los Angeles.

Noir isn't just drunk gumshoes and hoods with guns, though who doesn't love those things? I've seen people criticize this because it doesn't adequately resolve the mystery, and I don't get that at all. The mystery has always been a MacGuffin, and the main purpose of these narratives is the effects of obsession. Specifically, how obsession warps and destroys a person's life as they dig deeper and deeper into the hole, a descent into the worlds that we know lay beneath us but rarely want to venture into. What I like best about this film is that Mitchell is not reacting against noir as a genre, but picking the pieces out of it that work, while preserving the story that he wants to tell. It's an affectionate homage, heavily adapting Hitchcock's scores and camera movements, while not being a slavish imitation.

Much like the crumbling edge of the rust belt middle class ought to have gotten top billing in It Follows, Los Angeles is the co-star here. Cheaply constructed apartments haunted by skunks and the homeless, in the shadow of impossible spires of wealth, all brightly lit by the California sun. This film proves that Mitchell isn't just a sage of the Midwest, but a man who can extract the essential qualities of a place, not just in appearance but in its ramifications for where society has been and is heading. Sam lives an increasingly marginalized existence, no future or pathway thereto apparent, so why not allow the mind to wander into the unseen spaces? Why not concoct some mystery after pinning all of your hopes on the pretty blonde you met an hour beforehand? A man staring at the rest of his downhill slope life, squeezing whatever distraction he can out of the world while he plays in the Golden Age of Hollywood Necropolis. This is powerful imagery, and Mitchell uses it well.

The incessant weirdness once things get going could be grating for some, I imagine. Something about Garfield's continual bewilderment and bizarre misfortunes seems to temper it, though. Things that could be taken as weird for the sake of weird become part of a larger cosmic joke upon this man, a celestial penis keyed into the hood of his life. Interspersed with all the strangeness are moments of wonderful unease and terror, best represented by the Owl Woman daintily reaching a bare foot out of an unexpected cabinet to pursue her murderous intent. That might be my favorite shot of the year so far. I also appreciate the presence of Patrick Fischler here, who brings a little of the Mulholland Drive magic with him.

This is a next step for Mitchell, something that's unmistakably his and unafraid. I hope that all of the distribution and releasing grabassery surrounding this film aren't signs of industry resistance to his product, but then again, if they are, what of it. He doesn't strike me as a man whose next project will suffer all that much for it.

Herb liked these reviews

All