Under the Silver Lake ★★★★½

"This means something. This is important." - another thirtysomething man unhinged and determined to find an answer to it all.

The essence of that famous Richard Dreyfuss line hangs above nearly every scene of this movie, a seeming neo-noir of the L.A. kind about an aimless joe whose pursuit of a new femme fatale in his apartment complex leads him into a world of conspiracy and danger. Like most noirs, the deeper he goes, the less sense any of it makes, but unlike the shaggy drug trip of its most recent brethren in art-house auteur noir cinema, P.T. Anderson's "Inherent Vice", this one doesn't get lost up its own ass. Its glimpses of madness and tangents unto the surreal aren't meant to baffle you in the haze of pot smoke that is practically a prerequisite for enduring that other film. David Robert Mitchell establishes a recognizable groundwork for all of the wonders encountered by Andrew Garfield throughout his odyssey. Subterranean cults, a comic book history of L.A.'s dark side, a naked serial killer wearing an owl's mask, the insidiously cheerful Songwriter who claims to have written all of the famous pop songs from the past several decades, clues hidden in Nintendo Power Magazine, it's a teeming tapestry of peculiar behavior and mesmerizing oddities, but even when some strain credulity and others hint at an outer layer of unreliable narrator schizophrenia, none of it seems random or over-indulgent. It's all part of this scene, and it's all rooted in sights, ideas, sensations, and real-life ephemera that we can relate to. Even the occasional jarring frenzies of violence and much more frequent libidinous distractions are linked to both characterization and universally understood human nature in a way that, again, fellow modern L.A.-is-a-deranged-wonderland sagas like "Inherent Vice" and David Lynch's "Lost Highway", which I also kept thinking of while watching this, or even to a lesser extent Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales", similarly attempted yet comprehensively failed to orchestrate.

"Under the Silver Lake" tilts toward ineffable existential significance with its big musings and everyday observations, its beauty and terror (often intertwined), its ennui and yearning. The main character is searching like all of us are, for satisfaction, purpose, enlightenment, the fulfillment of enticing prospects, sometimes just a fun way to spend the evening. I don't know if that's a theme David Robert Mitchell is specifically targeting, but it's the takeaway that has lingered over me since watching this. He wanders through life savoring its idle pleasures, confused by its greater complexities, wasting his time chasing unattainable goals, always unsure if there might be some grand explanation that ties everything together. There's something stirring about that mixture of awe and the mundane. That attempt to describe our perception of life as weirdly magical, in that it can pirouette from romantic to passionate to scary to insane to dull to disappointing.

Writing, directing, cinematography, casting, production design, editing, the lustrous evocation of classic cinema through the Disasterpeace score, it's all superlative. A perfectly selected R.E.M. song I'd never heard before drops at just the right moment. Pop culture weaves through these people's lives in a way that sounds truer to my daily experiences and conversations than movies usually ever bother trying to integrate. Doing one of these episodic, borderline plotless noir journeys was very canny of Mitchell, whose last two films thrived on everything in-between their narrative drive. He's better at slice-of-life nuance and exploring powerful mood than bothering with an A-Z story. I wouldn't say this strikes it right 100% of the time (all the stuff with the Homeless King lacked resonance to me, for example), but it made a heavier impression than most movies I've seen recently, including ones in this genre and even David Robert Mitchell's admirable yet uneven previous two.

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