A man spies on his neighbors with a pair of binoculars. He gets in his car and tails a dame across the city in the middle of the day. His nights are spent with a drink, a woman or awake in his apartment with a pistol in his hand. Many movies reference Alfred Hitchcock and the hard-boiled detective novels of yore, but Under the Silver Lake (2019) abandons the pretense and just pretends to be one.
David Robert Mitchell’s zany, divisive follow-up to 2014’s It Follows catapults itself across Los Angeles over the span of a week or so with all the intensity, exhaustion and madness of an all-night drug bender. Someone’s going around L.A. killing dogs. A dead squirrel plummets from a tree. Mitchell’s wily loser of a hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), has sex with an actress friend (Riki Lindhome) while staring at an autographed Kurt Cobain poster, and later, Sam smashes an egg in a kid’s mouth and punches him across the face. All this in the first 20 minutes — Under the Silver Lake, despite never feeling as though it has anywhere to go, is in quite a hurry to get there.
Garfield’s been on a post-Spider-Man upswing with Silence (2016) and Silver Lake, and his Jimmy Stewart stand-in here is (properly) a total creep: From the very first scene, he’s ogling a woman’s breasts. Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954) may have intelligently deconstructed the male gaze, but Silver Lake intentionally skips the subtlety to show us the sexually repressed, misogynistic, predatory man at his most dangerous. Sam calls women “birds” and imagines them as barking like dogs, and he’s constantly staring at their bums.
One particularly arresting bum belongs to Sarah (Riley Keough), another neighbor of Sam’s with whom he quickly falls in love. Sam doesn’t have a day job, so he spends his time gawking at Sarah in her bikini and fantasizing about her, all of which is unceremoniously ended when, one morning, Sarah’s gone.
Despite being astronomically behind on rent payments and having only a vaguely friendly rapport with Sarah, Sam transforms into a more abrasive, dumber Philip Marlowe. From here, Under the Silver Lake loop-de-loops on well-trodden noir storytelling tracks, conjuring Chinatown (1974) and Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Patrick Fischler, the man who had the dream in the diner in that film, appears in Mitchell’s film as a graphic novelist who’s invented a rich history of demons and nightmares to explain the mysterious goings-on around the Silver Lake community. Thanks somewhat to him, Sam thinks he’s on the trail of a conspiracy of Dan Brown magnitude, and maybe he is. He thinks people are out to kill him, and maybe they are.
Sam’s delusions are ones only lonely, lazy, well-off white men can have — it must be nice to have time to look for codes on the backs of cereal boxes and in popular music. Yet Under the Silver Lake lampoons Sam, simultaneously betraying Mitchell’s own animus toward L.A. and the modern culture of conspiracy. It isn’t such a huge leap from “the evil 1 percent kidnapped my hot-pants neighbor” to “the government is controlling the weather,” “the Earth is flat” and “the Sandy Hook shooting was staged.”
Yet Mitchell’s approach to the noir shoots itself in the foot. Surely cinephiles will treat Under the Silver Lake as a glammed-up, funnier Donnie Darko (2001) or The Shining (1980), something to pick apart frame by frame and overanalyze to the point of absurdity. The film’s trying to decry conspiracy theorists while also indulging them.
As a director, too, Mitchell’s not capable of wielding the cumbersome material. On a storytelling level, many subplots never pay off, including some that seem to give up halfway through scenes. For a film so obsessed with Hitchcock — a scene at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery finds some actresses leaning against his gravestone, for goodness’ sake — Under the Silver Lake forgets that even the worst Hitchcock movies had some basic logical sense to them.
Mitchell’s crafted a film that’s both dully hyper-specific and too vague when it should matter the most. It’s fun but laboriously overwritten, to the extent that every scene feels hermetically sealed, as though everywhere Garfield goes is a closed-off film set alienated from the rest of L.A.
On the surface, it’s slick and labyrinthine and features a wonderful turn by Garfield in a performance approaching farce, yet Silver Lake’s ultimately not interesting enough to warrant the fan theories and analysis that will surely follow in its wake. As a fanboy-ish ode to Mulholland Dr., it succeeds on surrealism alone, but as a love letter to Hitchcock, Silver Lake falls disappointingly flat. Perhaps you shouldn’t have your characters stand on the man’s grave if you don’t have the filmmaking talents to back it up.