It takes guts to make a new LA noir. Every aspect of the genre has been explored by brilliant filmmakers, from classic black and white detective stories like The Big Sleep to stoner comedy in The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice to full-bore surrealism in Mulholland Drive. When this genre works, it absolutely sings, as Shane Black’s magnificent comedy The Nice Guys most recently proved. Under the Silver Lake doesn’t join the hallowed halls of these masterpieces, but David Robert Mitchell’s deliberately divisive follow up to his lauded horror It Follows is still an intoxicating trip into a seedy but seductive world of California conspiracies.
There are a lot of influences immediately evident on Under the Silver Lake, with its dashes of Lynchian nightmare-fuel and dangerously horny wealthy elites that feel very reminiscent of Inherent Vice, but the noir character it borrows most heavily from is The Dude. Protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) isn’t anywhere near as likable as the Coens’s White Russian-loving leading man, but he shares The Dude’s laziness and purposelessness as he ineptly searches for his missing neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough). As Sam hunts for Sarah across a fantastical alt-LA, he encounters secret codes, hidden tunnels, owl-themed nudist murderers, and countless other oddities.
It’s a shaggy dog story, to be sure, a mystery for mystery’s sake that gives some answers but would clearly be just as comfortable providing none at all. This will undoubtedly prove frustrating to many, as will the company of Sam himself – who is searching for Sarah more out of hope of getting a grateful shag than to actually help her. We see most of the film through his eyes, and they are the eyes of a sluggish, hypocritical pervert. This makes for some leering, ogling camerawork as Sam encounters a slew of beautiful young women who he never bothers learning the names of, but Mitchell doesn’t pretend that his hero is in any way heroic.
Prone to fits of violent rage and pronouncements like ‘I hate the homeless’, he’s a model of entitled, toxic masculinity, a toxicity that Mitchell drives home by having Sam reek of skunk spray for the entire latter half of the film. That he works at all as a protagonist is thanks to some even more loathsome villains and a really great turn from Garfield. Bleary and bewildered, it’s unlike anything he’s done before. He’s compellingly sleazy and funny and gets one wonderful scene of pure sincerity and happiness as he dances to REM (Mitchell has compiled a hell of a soundtrack) at an underground party, completely free of his usual neuroses.
Paranoia lies thick in the air in almost every scene, the fog of uncertainty generally only clearing when something horrific emerges. Mitchell crafts a rich and heady atmosphere, aided by highly mobile and involving camerawork and some enjoyably uncanny set design as Sam delves deeper into the secret world of LA’s elites that I found myself irresistibly drawn into, a series of mystery doors that just gets more and more fascinating.
While the plot isn’t hugely propulsive, background mysteries keep you unsettled and Mitchell is careful with his timeline, stopping the story from sagging during a well over two hour runtime. The heaviness is broken up by more lighthearted hangout sessions with Sam’s friend (Topher Grace), which are mostly breezy, but also capture one indelible moment of moral queasiness.
Mitchell’s script is obsessed with the minutiae of retro nerd culture and LA lore. These small details are at once world-changing and utterly meaningless, perfectly capturing the contrast in modern pop-culture between how much emotional stake we put in our music, movies, and videogames, and how much they’ll actually matter in the long term. As for how seriously Mitchell wants you to take this film in particular, it’s best summed up by two shots – a lingering look at a literal gold-plated turd, and Sam wanking himself into an epiphany. Under the Silver Lake doesn’t think it’s important, and knows you might hate it, but it’s inviting you along for the ride anyway, and I, for one, am very grateful that it is.