For a while I thought we’d just never actually see this film. A24 picked up David Robert Mitchell’s followup to his incredible horror hit It Follows before it started production, and was set to come out last June when suddenly just weeks away from release they pulled it. No explanation was given, they pushed it back to December, which then came and went with no more explanation given for the delay. Finally, a few weeks ago they announced they were dumping Under the Silver Lake on VOD. It had to be bad for them to just try to make us forget about it, right? I mean, they did the same with Slice last year, but it was clear that just from the trailer that it was shit, so the dumping to VOD was justified. But Under the Silver Lake looked good, it had a strong trailer, a good cast and an exciting filmmaker. What were they trying to hide? What were they so ashamed of? After watching Under the Silver Lake, I just can’t figure out why A24 – my favorite studio, the saviors of modern cinema – went to such extremes to ignore it and make it as unsuccessful as possible, because guess what? THIS FILM IS REALLY FUCKING GOOD.
Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a jobless, aimless man who spends a magical night with a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough), when he finds her swimming in his apartment complex pool. The next morning, she has disappeared without a trace. He begins a hunt across Los Angeles to find her, following codes and symbols that point to a larger conspiracy, involving a serial dog murderer, the illuminati, a hip goth band obsessed with vampires and Jesus, the disappearance and death of a billionaire, and the homeless king. It’s as bizarre as it sounds, and delightfully so. The weirder and weirder this film got, the more and more I liked it. I was down for what David Robert Mitchell was throwing down. It’s one of the most gonzo and original films you’ll see this year, and I just saw High Life last week.
It’s easy to forget after four whole years of his prime were punted away on two awful Spider-Man films – no really, after capping off 2010 with The Social Network all he did were those two atrocious abominations of Spider-Man films before another quality film in 2015 with 99 Homes – that Andrew Garfield is a quality actor at worst, and a great one at best. Pencil this closer to his “great” category. He’s got this wide-eyed paranoia going on here in each scene, he’s really something when he gets on a rant about conspiracies and the illuminati. You start to become more and more convinced he’s onto something, whatever the fuck it may be, as he goes further and further down these rabbit holes. There’s this boyish charm to him that he knows to tap into like an electrical outlet. He’s cleverly against type as the familiar “gumshoe detective” protagonist. He’s lean and unimposing. He’s soft-boiled. Then he’ll erupt into something as shocking as throat-punching a kid who vandalized his car, then shove an egg in his mouth, borderline-choking this kid – just to keep you on your toes. The final look he gives in the film casts a whole lot of it in a completely different light. Chilling work right there. Is Andrew Garfield underrated again? I think he might be. God, I’ve missed steady quality work from him. Riley Keough, Grace Van Patten, Jimmi Simpson, Topher Grace, Riki Lindhome, David Yow and Callie Hernandez all deliver quality work. Jeremy Bobb has one of those great one-scene wonders of a performance, a la Ned Beatty in Network, delivered maniacally and gloriously. You’ll know it when you see it. That’s all I’m authorized to say about that.
David Robert Mitchell reteams with his It Follows director of photography Mike Gioulakis, who has quickly become one of my favorite working cinematographers since that film with his work on Split, Glass and Us. Their partnership continues to be a winning one here. Mitchell leans heavily into the classic hollywood and noir influences inherent in this film, and Gioulakis is there to make it magnificently manifested. When Riley Keough’s Sarah exits her apartment to find Garfield’s Sam waiting for her, there is a swell of strings as her face is angelically lit against exquisite shadow. It’s a shot entrance worthy of Lauren Bacall. You can practically reach out and feel the celluloid. There are so many shots in this film straight out of a classic studio picture, without feeling overly referential. They feel fresh and timeless all at once. That is Mike Gioulakis. Also, Mitchell and Gioulakis sure do know how to shoot blood in water and make it hauntingly gorgeous.
I was actually shocked when I saw Disasterpeace did the score, this is nothing like their It Follows score. The score could have been recorded in the 40s or 50s by Bernard Herrmann. It checks all the boxes of classic hollywood suspense with dramatic strings, dangerous horns and swelling timpani rolls. Disasterpeace has far more range than even I thought they were capable of.
There’s a wonderfully delirious sense of humor throughout Under the Silver Lake, adding a new and unexpected move to Mitchell’s repertoire. One paranoid character with a wall full of face masks of famous people self-remarks that he should get a family, but only so he has someone to leave these to. Sam and other characters winkingly dance to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” in one scene. He writes a quick detective note on an unpaid parking ticket. There’s this whole 15 minute section of the film where you keep thinking he’s about to uncover something incredible that goes absolutely nowhere, and it had me cackling once it was clear it gone nowhere. Then he’ll abruptly shift gears in ways that surprise you. I audibly yelled “Holy shit!” at my screen when a scene in the third act went ludicrously off the rails towards a shocking, bloody act of violence. Also, there is one scene that I must bring up. Mitchell has a large crowd watching his first film The Myth of the American Sleepover in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and Sam happens upon some of the actors from that film as things get real meta. And the kicker? They are leaning on Alfred Hitchcock’s grave. What a moment. I don’t have a fucking clue as to its intent, but it meant something. What a glorious, loaded scene. Talk to me about it sometime.
I doubt I’m the first to point out the comparisons between this film and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It’s impossible to ignore. One at least one level, this film acts as a letter of admiration to Lynch and especially the dreamy haze and infinite strangeness of Mulholland Drive. It’s got that same strange element of horror that punctuates this upending of noir storytelling. Like Mulholland Drive, you’re not always sure of what you’re watching, what it could possibly mean, why characters are doing what they’re doing – but there’s something enchanting about it all that holds you. Mitchell anticipates us making these comparisons, and leans into them with the tremendous stunt-casting of Patrick Fischler – part of one of the most memorable scenes in Mulholland Drive. There are a few quick bumps of Brian De Palma too, which I’m a sucker for in any capacity.
David Robert Mitchell is the real deal. His debut The Myth of the American Sleepover is solid, but not necessarily special. But It Follows was an instant, modern classic of horror. It was my favorite movie of 2015, I saw it 3 times in the theater. There was some worry, especially due to the turbulent circumstances of this film’s release, that a steep regression was coming. Not in this film. Under the Silver Lake is nothing like MItchell’s other work, that dude has never made the same film twice, and something tells me he’s not planning on it either. It’s a modern miracle that a film as strange as this exists in today’s film economy. I kept waiting for this film to bottom out, to have that “aha!” moment of clarity as to why A24 wanted to distance themselves from it, but it never came. The film just kept getting better the more bonkers it got. I think the one thing that holds it back from a possible loony and flawed masterpiece like Southland Tales, is that I wish it would have leaned farther into some implications it makes towards the end, it almost leaves an important subplot just hanging there. You’ll know it when you see it. Regardless, the more I think about it and the more I type here, I think maybe Mitchell made the right move in making it as ambiguous yet obvious as he did. Respect. This film is 2 hours and 20 minutes, yet I wouldn’t lose any of it. It all feels strangely essential, and doesn’t feel like it’s dragging at any point. Under the Silver Lake ultimately becomes about the battle to find hope and meaning against the pointlessness and monotony and endless slog of the modern corporate world. What’s the point when nirvana is only for those rich enough to ascend to it? Why would you want to continue living in that world?
I have to be honest, and maybe I’m just fucking jaded, but the last handful of times I’ve been to the theater this year, I’ve been burned. Very few of the films I’ve been looking forward to have delivered, none have given me any sort of drive to write about them. It took a film dumped on VOD to spur me back into action, to inspire. I still can’t figure out why in the hell A24 all but abandoned this film, because while it by no means had any chance of blowing up the box office, that’s never been the main goal of A24’s films. I mean, I just saw High Life in the theater thanks to them. I just don’t understand. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you!