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In Theaters/On VOD: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019)

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UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
(US - 2019)

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez, Don McManus, Jeremy Bobb, Riki Lindhome, Zosia Mamet, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Grace Van Patten, India Menuez, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, Chris Gann, Stephanie Moore, Sibongile Mlambo, Rex Linn, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Laura-Leigh, Luke Baines, Sydney Sweeney, David Yow, Summer Bishil, Deborah Geffner. (R, 139 mins)

It says something about just how strange and impenetrable UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is that distributor A24--the folks who specialize in giving nationwide rollouts to divisive audience-alienators like THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, GOOD TIME, and HEREDITARY--were at a complete loss as to what to do with it. The much-anticipated follow-up to writer/director David Robert Mitchell's acclaimed 2015 horror hit IT FOLLOWS, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE was filmed in late 2016 and released overseas last summer after a mixed reception at Cannes. Skittish about its commercial prospects at home, A24 moved the film to December 2018, then pulled it from the release schedule entirely, ultimately unveiling it with little fanfare on just two screens on April 19, 2019, with a VOD dumping four days later. In more ways than one, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is to Mitchell what SOUTHLAND TALES was to Richard Kelly, the acclaimed writer/director who was given wide latitude after 2001's DONNIE DARKO got zero attention in theaters before becoming a bona fide cult sensation once it hit video stores. Following the success of IT FOLLOWS, Mitchell was more or less permitted to make the film he wanted to make with UNDER THE SILVER LAKE. It's not IT FOLLOWS, just like SOUTHLAND TALES wasn't DONNIE DARKO, and it's an odd time for visionary auteurs when Kelly hasn't made a movie in ten years and unfortunately seems to have fallen off the face of the earth, and here's Mitchell, another wunderkind granted almost complete freedom on a project and creating something that's left its producers and distributors (and some audiences) completely dumbfounded. History has a way of repeating itself.






That said, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is a better and, relatively speaking, more disciplined film than SOUTHLAND TALES, and it's not just Kelly to whom Mitchell owes a debt. He's also wearing his love of David Lynch and Brian De Palma on his sleeve and fashioning the whole thing as a sort-of INHERENT VICE-esque shaggy dog story that's incredibly ambitious and compulsively intriguing for much of its lengthy duration. That is until Mitchell starts trying to explain too many things, which is something Lynch would've never done. In probably his best performance to date, HACKSAW RIDGE Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an aimless, unemployed L.A. slacker who's five days away from being evicted. He loves comic books and movies, his apartment is filled with old movie posters and his mom calls him to talk about Janet Gaynor and remind him that the silent classic SEVENTH HEAVEN is airing on Turner Classic Movies later that night. Sam fills his days hooking up with an aspiring actress and friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome) and watching his bikini-clad neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) through binoculars. That night, she invites him over. Her bedroom walls are adorned with movie posters and they watch HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE on TCM. After some flirting and a kiss, her two roommates return home with an eye-patched, pirate-looking guy and a suddenly nervous Sarah abruptly ends the evening, telling him to come over and hang out tomorrow. The next day, Sarah's apartment is empty, she and the roommates are gone, and the building manager (Rex Linn) says they just up and left. Sam sneaks into the vacant apartment and is almost seen by a mystery woman (Zosia Mamet), who grabs a shoebox full of Sarah's personal items from a closet and gets in a car with two other women. Sam follows them and witnesses them hand off the shoebox to the pirate guy, who urgently sprints away with it.






To go any deeper into a straight synopsis is pointless, as it'll likely make me sounds as insane as Sam, who embarks on a dangerous journey throughout and underneath L.A. and Hollywood in search of Sarah. Her disappearance was really all he needed to fully embrace his inner crackpot conspiracy theorist, especially once the actress friend is scared away after finding pages upon pages of papers on Sam's bedside table revealed to be his scribbled notes documenting old episodes of WHEEL OF FORTUNE, as he's convinced that Vanna White is sending coded messages with her eye movements. Sarah may or may not be dead, and Sam's investigation involves, in no particular order: a rash of serial dog killings plaguing the neighborhood; strange, shadowy figures following him; the July 1970 issue of Playboy; the death of prominent billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) and three women in a car fire; a freeze-frame of a TV news update on the Sevence death showing the burned remnants of what looks like Sarah's hat and the charred remains of a dog found in the purse of one of the women; Sam's drinking buddy (Topher Grace) using a drone to spy on women; self-published graphic novel writer Comic Guy (Patrick Fischler), who has an intense interest in subliminal messages and the "programming" inherent in advertising; a symbol painted on the wall of Sarah's apartment that Comic Guy reveals to be known among the homeless to mean "Keep quiet;" Sam finding hidden codes and messages in the lyrics of an up-and-coming L.A. indie rock band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; one such code sending him to the James Dean bust at the Griffith Park Observatory, where The Homeless King (Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) introduces him to a series of hidden tunnels under the park; the sudden appearance of Owl's Kiss, a murderous figure from Comic Guy's zine Under the Silver Lake; a map found in an old cereal box that mirrors the tunnels underneath Griffith Park; and an elderly songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), whose influence on popular culture is more than Sam can fathom.


What does all of this mean? It means there's certain to be years of thinkpieces and essays written about UNDER THE SILVER LAKE. Even Mitchell says there's too much here to unpack on one viewing, but from the start, you're paying attention to every number and detail that appears, as everything on the screen is likely there for a reason (Comic Guy's address is 1492, the drinking buddy's is 1016, and there's a flashing "751" on a scoreboard). But it's just as likely that some of these details are just there for Mitchell to fuck with the audience. There's a prescient subtext that definitely addresses the issue of toxic masculinity, invoked with background chatter of "the male gaze" at a Jesus and the Brides of Dracula secret show that Sam attends, his eventually meeting a trio of actresses who work for an escort service called "Shooting Star" and are also seen in the company of the pirate guy (Sam will see one of them in a club as they dance to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" a further nod to conspiracy kooks); and in the drinking buddy's use of a drone to secretly record women. But it's also a blistering rebuke of a kind of male, namely the adult stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. Sam has no apparent job or means of supporting himself, yet he drives a nice car (that eventually gets repossessed) and hangs out at pricey coffee shops (one assumption might be that his mom is sending him money and he's pissing it away). But Sam's humiliating dressing-down by the songwriter is a key moment as the man claims that he's responsible for everything formative in everyone's lives, from classic songs to memorable jingles, even playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a piano and cackling that people think that song changed their lives ("That song wasn't written for distorted guitar...it was written by me between a blowjob and an omelette!  I'm the voice of your generation!").





With the brutal takedown of pop culture by the songwriter (a great scene, by the way, and destined get 30 million views on YouTube), and Sam's ultimate discovery of what's really going on and the reasoning behind it all, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE's third act veers into FIGHT CLUB territory, which is maybe one influence more than the narrative of this labyrinthine saga can handle. The "waking nightmare" feel of the story begins collapsing when Mitchell feels the need to start explaining, and his decision to force it all to make sense (and a lot of it still doesn't) grinds things to a tedious halt when it matters most. But in fairness, this is the kind of film that you can watch ten times and have ten different reactions, depending on which element you choose to focus. On one viewing, it feels like it's biting off way more than it can chew, though the endless in-jokes (there's a funny sight gag involving an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, a pointed reference to nobody liking Garfield's turn as Spidey, a planned trilogy halted after two films) and movie references (there's a slew of David Lynch shout-outs, like the tunnels invoking the horror underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque surface of BLUE VELVET; Sam beating the shit out of two teenage vandals in a moment that's every bit as gratifying as mobster Robert Loggia's revenge on an obnoxious tailgater in LOST HIGHWAY; and the very presence of Fischler, unforgettable in the traumatizing Winkie's scene in MULHOLLAND DR) are undeniably entertaining. Is UNDER THE SILVER LAKE a brilliantly-conceived, unsolvable puzzle that cineastes will be deciphering for years to come or is Mitchell is sending the gullible on a wild goose chase? It's impossible to tell, but one recurring theme throughout is masturbation, which becomes a metaphor for Sam's obsessive pursuit, never more blatantly than when he takes a break to jerk off while a Jesus and the Brides of Dracula vinyl plays in reverse as he scours their album for hidden messages. Maybe all we're doing with all this overanalyzing is jerking ourselves off. Maybe that's kinda what Mitchell's doing with UNDER THE SILVER LAKE.



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