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Under the Silver Lake (2018)



Genre:       Crime, Drama, Mystery

Director:    David Robert Mitchell

Cast:         Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Zosia Mamet…and more

Writer:      David Robert Mitchell


A directionless young man plunges into the murky depths of Los Angeles when he becomes obsessed with unravelling the mystery of his beautiful and mysterious neighbour who inexplicably disappears, only to uncover a bizarre conspiracy in this surrealist mystery with classic Hollywood overtones from the director of ‘It Follows’.

No one could accuse burgeoning American writer/director David Robert Mitchell of being afraid to spread his filmmaking wings or stir the cinematic pot, having begun his career with suburban coming-of-age dramedy ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’, and followed it up by capturing the imagination of critics and selected audiences with his wonderfully inventive indie horror metaphor for teenage promiscuity and STDs ‘It Follows’. But few would have predicted that a reverence for ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood would lead him into Lynch, Hitchcock and Malick territory—drawing the audience into a quirky yet dark contemporary neo-noir L.A. mystery which leaves you scratching your head throughout . . . and long after the credits roll.

Andrew Garfield stars as ambitionless Silver Lake resident ‘Sam’, an awkward young man with little direction whose life is turned upside down by the disappearance of his beautiful enigmatic neighbour ‘Sarah’ (Riley Keough), and the obsession he develops with finding someone he barely knows. As he turns amateur sleuth trying to connect the dots between her, the vanishing of an eccentric local billionaire and a spate of dog killings, Sam is pulled deeper into a rabbit hole of symbols and subliminal messages, while being drawn into the surreal world of Los Angeles’ most bizarre residents, on his way to unravelling a conspiracy which may or may not finally grant him serenity.

Whilst it may be set in contemporary L.A., ‘Under the Silver Lake’ is neither subtle nor unclear about its intentions  when it comes to being an ode to classic era Hollywood, not only paying visual and plotline tribute to the period’s films and faces, but even going as far as weaving actual clips from vintage tinseltown pictures into the meandering narrative. The film’s credentials both as a nostalgia piece and a reverential mystery in its own right are bolstered by a splendid, highly atmospheric, often grandiose and occasionally quirky classical score from composer Richard Vreeland aka ‘Disasterpeace’, harking back to film noir and classic mystery/thrillers.

Yet this is also very much a modern day mystery, with a fluctuating tone to accompany the inscrutable plot which ranges from often comical to occasionally whimsical and even a tad bit dark, while taking a humorously frank approach to its many depictions of sex and nudity. There’s also the odd bit of gruesome violence and some very subtle horror undertones, which don’t really fit the narrative or advance the story—but ‘Under the Silver Lake’ has much more in common with ‘Mulholland Drive’, ‘Chinatown’ and the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock than it does with Mitchell’s previous picture ‘It Follows’.

Among an array of quirky characters and hipsters of every description and limited screen time, Andrew Garfield is the only true star of this show and the master of his misfortunes, with the young Brit once again seamlessly turning American. This time he appropriately subdues his own charisma to play a jaded and aimless young man who develops an inexplicable obsession and delves into the sexy but murky depths of tinseltown, drawn into conspiracies and intricate hidden messages while scrambling across L.A. to find answers—perhaps reflecting the malaise of a generation moved only by extremes and what they can’t have.

By sheer virtue of its eccentricity, the atmosphere it sets, and the fact that it gives very little away for a long time, ‘Under the Silver Lake’ remains gripping until the very end. But after a while all the style and pretty young people start to wear thin, as does the sense of an endless journey, lacking the narrative finesse to keep you engrossed beyond the simple interest of finally finding out what the hell is really going on, and the satisfaction of drawing a line under it all.

Yet for all its merits as a sexually liberated piece of stylistic intrigue, the more ‘Under the Silver Lake’ moves along and reveals, the more paranoid and inscrutable it becomes, and like the protagonist we are led down a deliberately circuitous path seemingly to nowhere—that is until the hugely underwhelming, all-important conclusion. Rather than reaching for Terrence Malick levels of narrative ambiguity, Mitchell does wrap things up with answers, but the conclusion is so anti-climactic that it undermines the two-hours-plus you’ve invested.

By the end, whether you take much of what you see literally or not, and even though it dabbles with commenting on our prescribed and contrived sheep-like existence, and peeks under the veil of our increasingly vapid Western culture—‘Under the Silver Lake’ is nowhere near as reflective or existential as its peculiarity suggests . . . but read into it what you will. Yet there’s enough good work done over the two first acts, an abundance of style and atmosphere, and enough of a surrealist streak to make this reverential but unique neo-noir mystery pop off the screen and keep you morbidly gripped . . . if not quite enchanted.

The Bottom Line…

A well dressed and beautifully scored surrealist neo-noir L.A. mystery with classic Hollywood overtones, ‘Under the Silver Lake’ excels with mood and style but struggles with genuine substance, leading the audience on a merry dance around the tinseltown underbelly and keeping us guessing throughout—before majorly letting everybody down and leaving us questioning (albeit not regretting) the near two-and-a-half hours we’ve just invested.

Similar films you may like (Home Video)

Mulholland Drive (2001)

An aspiring young blond actress is pulled into Hollywood’s dark underbelly when she forms an unlikely bond with a seductive brunette amnesiac, with their dark story unraveling in hallucinatory fashion as they fill the gaps in her memory, making them and the audience question the very nature of their reality, in this much celebrated and mesmerising neo-noir mystery from David Lynch.

Directed by David Lynch and starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Justin Theroux among others.

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