Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a loser who spends his days watching old movies, playing video games, and spying on the strange topless lady with the birds who lives in his apartment complex. His aimless existence is shaken by the arrival into his life of Sarah, all blonde hair and 1950’s vintage outfits, who invites him into her home after he’s kind to her dog. After their evening together is cut short by the arrival of others she promises they’ll meet up the next day. But when Sam goes to see her Sarah has vanished – packed up and fled in the middle of the night with nothing left but a tiny box of her belongings and a cryptic symbol on the wall. Convinced that some terrible fate has befallen Sarah, Sam launches an epic quest to find her, one that takes him through the strange underbelly of Los Angeles.
Under the Silver Lake is written and directed by David Robert Mitchell and is the follow up to his much praised indie horror It Follows. It’s had something of a torturous journey to the screen. A24 (the US distributor) decided to premiere it at Cannes last year which was a foolhardy choice given that Andrew Garfield’s commitments to Angels in America on Broadway meant that he couldn’t promote it and Cannes is rarely kind to offbeat films. The reaction wasn’t great and resulted in A24 bumping the release date twice. In the US it’s been removed from A24’s upcoming films on its website. Which is a terrible shame for both Mitchell and his star as Under the Silver Lake is a fascinating, trippy, engagingly odd homage to 1950’s film noir with a killer central performance.
Under the Silver Lake is something of an unwieldy beast of a film. It’s overlong, the pay off doesn’t land and the scene where Sam meets the man who has written every popular song ever would try the patience of a saint. However, if you can just let it all wash over you there’s an awful lot to enjoy. The score is wonderful and the soundtrack stuffed to the brim with classics which are deployed to great effect (most notably What’s the Frequency Kenneth? by R.E.M which Andrew Garfield memorably dances to at one point). Codes and cyphers abound as Sam (the sort of person who’s always been convinced that popular culture is riddled with codes and messages from secret societies) feverishly tries to make sense of incomprehensible markings in his quest (the entire thing is a gift for Reddit who have already discovered codes in several scenes). Under the Silver Lake is sort of like a grown up twisted version of The Goonies (a film Garfield is an avowed fan of)
The film isn’t subtle about its influences. Sarah is the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, both the femme fatale that blows up Sam’s existence and the damsel in distress that he’s desperate to save. A noir-esque sense of quiet menace permeates every scene, with violence simmering under the surface of Sam’s every encounter. David Lynch’s influence is keenly felt. Everything in this world feels slightly off as if Sam’s travels (which take him from glitzy private parties to cemeteries to the depths of a reservoir) are glimpses into another darker realm. The people he meets are offbeat and often menacing most notably the Homeless King and The Owl’s Kiss (an ancient creature with the body of a woman and head of an owl who kills humans in the night). Under the Silver Lake wears its influences proudly on its sleeve inviting viewers to delve deeper into this hazy, crazy world.
This is film noir so sultry, scantily clad ladies seducing our (hapless) hero are expected elements of the genre but that doesn’t make the film’s treatment of women any less frustrating. Mitchell tries to have it both ways both recognising the toxicity of straight, white, male entitlement while simultaneously revelling in endless shots of jiggling boobs and perky bottoms. The bird lady is permanently topless for no reason, Garfield shows his arse but keeps his top on in a sex scene where his female counterpart gets to be completely naked. The women of Under the Silver Lake are beautiful, mysterious, frequently naked and have no voice. It’s frustrating, not only because Mitchell was so good at writing women in It Follows, but also because he’s not afraid to give male entitlement the absolute kicking it deserves. Mitchell doesn’t shy away from making it clear that Sam is a complete and total loser. He’s a feckless layabout that hates the homeless while simultaneously doing nothing about the fact that he’s about to be evicted from his home. Sam revels in cheap nostalgia (his walls are covered in posters of vintage films) and bemoans the fact that he was meant to “be something” even though he’s clearly not actually tried to do anything in his life. He’s constantly searching for meaning, obsessing over codes and cyphers that he is sure will one day lead him to a deeper meaning of life. Sam rolls his eyes at everyone’s obsession with work while we see his jealousy and resentment of other’s careers. He spends his days spying on women with binoculars and then when Sarah vanishes he thinks he deserves to know why. Sam is an entitled, creepy stalker.
If Sam wasn’t played by Andrew Garfield employing those massive brown puppy dog eyes to devastating effect we’d be utterly repulsed by him. As it is Mitchell doesn’t let Sam off the hook. Sam spends the film being insulted, humiliated (he gets sprayed by a skunk) and drugged senseless. When the Homeless King says that Sam doesn’t have a good odour you suspect he doesn’t mean it literally. Sam is bad news but because Sam looks like Andrew Garfield and this is film noir he also gets to hook up with an endless parade of women. You can’t really trash male entitlement while simultaneously rewarding the entitled character with endless bed partners. The film was screaming out for a female role to match Garfield’s. Riley Keough’s role is little more than a cameo – Sarah is a cypher. She’s the catalyst for Sam’s journey and his road to enlightenment not a person in her own right.
Given the muddled gender politics I fear the film could have become quickly insufferable were it not for an absolutely towering central performance from Andrew Garfield. Garfield is in every scene and somehow manages to imbue this creep of a character with a child like vulnerability. Sam is our guide to this shaggy dog story and Garfield is more than a match for every insane plot development that is thrown at him. He’s on top form whether giving a manic speech about conspiracy theories while bathing in tomato juice or styling out wearing his PJs to fancy parties. Garfield puts in a very fine comedic turn (just the way he runs with this sort of skittering movement is hilarious). It’s a masterful and very delicately balanced performance with Garfield switching lightening fast from affable wide-eyed charm to something uglier and darker (Sam for all his little boy lost, hobo charm is prone to sudden, shocking acts of violence and a compelling case could be made that Sam is the mysterious “Dog Killer” terrorising the neighbourhood). Garfield is utterly mesmeric and the film would be unwatchable without him.
Under the Silver Lake is an engaging, paranoid, hypnotic, unapologetically weird film anchored by a performance which proves that Andrew Garfield is one of the best actors working today. Destined for cult status.
Under the Silver Lake is released in the UK on Mubi on 15th March and will run at The Prince Charles Cinema from the same date.