Few US film-makers since Gus Van Sant have delivered such an original and electrifying opening hat-trick as David Robert Mitchell. His first two pictures – the wistful coming-of-age tale The Myth of the American Sleepover and the woozy horror It Follows – were set in a dreamy hinterland of eternal dusk. Mitchell’s third film, Under the Silver Lake, is a sun-bleached modern noir shuffling blearily in the footsteps of other Californian stoner odysseys: The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice, Brick. This shaggy-dog story begins with a warning, daubed on a coffee-shop window, that there is a pooch-killer on the loose. Other messages in the film tend to be more cryptic, hidden on cereal boxes, in records played backwards, and in the facial tics of the host of Wheel of Fortune.
Sam (Andrew Garfield), who sees patterns in everything, is a shambolic, unemployed voyeur. At least Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye had the decency to joke around with his exhibitionist neighbours, whereas Sam just stares at his through binoculars, or uses a drone to spy on a beautiful stranger. He becomes briefly besotted with Sarah (Riley Keough), who has a cute dog (a potential victim?) and a floppy sunhat with grooves in the rim like a vinyl record. When she vanishes around the same time that a local billionaire dies in a car accident, Sam takes it upon himself to track her down, conspicuously unbothered by his landlord’s promise to evict him.
Garfield’s gangly dopiness allows Sam’s more unsavoury qualities to emerge only gradually. Tailing his targets, he breaks into what can only be described as an adorable Riverdance run: stiff upper body, frenzied legs. He gives chase in a pedalo, and hides behind an inflatable ball at a pool party; he’s a regular beach-blanket Bogart. The deeper he gets into his investigation, though, the more it starts to feel like an excuse merely to stalk women. Is Sam a private dick, or just the common or garden variety?
Whatever the central conspiracy is here, water lies at the heart of it, just as it did in Chinatown. There is a constant drip of subaqueous references, from posters for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the sinister Old Hollywood fanzine from which the film takes its title, from a Super Mario Bros underwater game to Nirvana’s Nevermind. (Remember the cover art? Exactly.) Sam is stumbling through a pop-culture labyrinth, a hall of mirrors where profundity exists only in reflections and repetition. Even this idea echoes another offbeat LA gem, Repo Man, with its hippy mechanic musing on the universe’s “lattice of coincidence.”
The film’s in-jokes fit this mould, too: Sam gets his hand stuck on a gooey Spider-Man comic (Garfield enjoyed a brief stint as that superhero) and there’s an outdoor screening of The Myth of the American Sleepover attended by one of its stars, who dismisses it as “a little indie movie that never made a penny” (true) and confesses that she has since swapped acting for the escort business (presumably not). Sam’s tendency to see freaky connections in everything may rub off on us. When a woman says “We are all shooting stars”, it sounded to me like “shitting stars”, harking back to a scene where Sam attacks a musician on the toilet and we glimpse glitter in the man’s stool. And is it intentional that in a discussion about the pervasiveness of pop music, Sam glances up from a Fender Mustang guitar and says “I don’t believe you”– the same words Bob Dylan used in response to the heckler who branded him a Judas for going electric?
Pop culture can furnish us with potent hits of meaning, and the film rejoices in that. But it also asks what happens when they eclipse or outstrip lived experience. As one party guest puts it: “Why are we swimming on rooftops when there’s an ocean over there?” In a daring and brilliant coup, the movie conspires finally to show Sam stranded outside his own life, staring in at it like the homeless people he admits to despising. The plush orchestral score by the composer Disasterpeace maintains the connection to LA film noir, and Sam does his bit, too. He’s the big sleepwalker, stuck in a lonely place, about as much good as the corpse in the pool in Sunset Boulevard.
Under the Silver Lake (15)
dir: David Robert Mitchell
This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control