“Jesus and the Brides of Dracula. Hipster pirate. Topless bird-lover. Paddleboat stalking. Literally barking mad women. Hobo king with a cardboard crown.” The notes that I scrawled while watching Under The Silver Lake at its North American Premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival look like the scribbles of a madman. That madman is writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who won wild praise for his art-house horror hit It Follows, and now has returned with a wildly ambitious, unapologetically bizarre, and intriguingly polarizing stoner-noir.
Out of its Cannes world premiere, Under The Silver Lake divided critics. Some accused it of sexism, as well as lacking tension or emotional depth. Others compared it favorably to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a critically adored film that I personally loathed. And as It Follows underwhelmed me, I entered the theater with a low-boil sense of dread, prepared to sit down for a 2-hour and 20-minute movie I suspected I’d hate. But something magical happened as I watched the unfurling of a madcap and macabre tale of an amateur detective on the search for a missing blond bombshell. I was confused, uncomfortable, revolted, then laughing, aghast, and ultimately enthralled. I write this review the morning after in a kind of afterglow. Few movies are as willfully absurd as Under The Silver Lake, and I fell hard for its spell.
Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a natural disaster in human form. Squatting in a posh Silver Lake apartment, this unemployed and ambition-less stoner is on the brink of being evicted. But rather than scrounging for “work” — a word he regards with abject disdain — Sam focuses on Sarah (Riley Keough), a dreamy blonde whose sudden disappearance throws this paranoid vagabond into an outrageous quest, meandering through shady casting calls, painfully hip parties, trippy secret shows, and curious underground tunnels. Along the way he’ll come across wealthy old men mad with power, young men hungry for mystique, and a seemingly endless stream of gorgeous women whose bodies are offered up like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The complaints of the film’s lack of tension and emotional depth, I understand completely. As Sam bumbles from one near-catastrophe to the next without consequence, there is no promise of suspense. And there’s an irksome remoteness to the performances because so many characters are determined to seem artfully aloof. But this is a feature, not a glitch, intended to reflect the hazy madness of LA.
As to sexism, many of the women in Under The Silver Lake expose their bodies for our viewing pleasure. Meanwhile, Garfield’s nudity is played Pooh-bear style (t-shirt, no pants) for laughs. The leering at these women is ravenous. As the film is tied to Sam’s perspective, the camera often jumps into his POV, meaning close-up of women’s asses and bare breasts as he ogles, an unnoticed voyeur. But there’s a mounting menace tied to Sam’s objectification of these women, many of whom never get names, just labels like The Actress (Riki Lindhome), Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), and Shooting Star (India Menuez). Though Sam regards them chiefly as tools for his personal gratification (be that sex, clue-seeking, or both), the film gives us peaks beyond their pretty veneers, daring us to see past their bared breasts to their bared souls.
Several of these women share insights into their lives, be it their personal philosophies, the struggles of being a working actor who can’t get acting work, or a yearning for something more profound than the Hollywood Hills has to offer. But these conversations are tangled in the midst of Sam’s quest for secret codes, conspiracy theories, and personal baggage. So, like him, it can be easy for audiences to overlook these vulnerable revelations in eagerness for the next wild plot twist or odd yet erotic spectacles of fetish wear, skinny-dipping, or balloon dancing. But while Garfield brings a jangly charm to Sam, there is no doubt you are meant to be fascinated yet infuriated by him as he races about clutching a stolen cereal box to his chest, ranting about the secret messages in pop songs, and punching adolescent vandals so hard their baby-teeth are rattling. He is not to be admired. His treatment of women as tools to satisfy his desires is ultimately regarded as loathsome and pathetic, its ugliness exposed.
Under The Silver Lake lures us in, welcoming us to leer at these Hollywood babes as countless L.A. stories have done before. Then Mitchell twists us with discomfort, tying their objectification to abduction, violence, and death. From this arises the brief tangent of a vengeful urban legend. With an owl’s face and the nude body of a slender, young woman, The Owl’s Kiss (Karen Nitsche) stalks the night, breaking into homes without a sound then brutally murdering anything she wishes. She is alluring yet merciless, and — in a sense — she is Hollywood itself.
Packed-to-the-brim allusions to classic movies, Los Angeles landmarks and lore, Under The Silver Lake is a love letter to Hollywood. Not one written on sweetly scented paper but rather scrawled on the shit-smeared bathroom wall in a streaky Sharpie. Mitchell fawns over the glamor, beauty and unrepentant weirdness of Los Angeles, but his love is snarled by the awareness of how all of this dazzling spectacle is caked-over with corruption, objectification, broken dreams, abuse, and lies. His LA is the kind of place where someone can reasonably describe a producer as “he’s the one who makes those action movies based on cleaning products.” The place where a cynical songwriter might scoff about one of his hits, “I wrote it between a blowjob and an omelet.” It’s a place where a feckless dick who reeks of skunk weed and actual skunk spray can swan into exclusive parties in pajamas, and not only get compliments on his “cool shirt” but also catch the eye of the prettiest girl in the room. It is a fantasy. It is a nightmare. It is indulgent. It is insane. And Under The Silver Lake invites us in, winding a leisurely ludicrous mystery that takes us from tourist to local, leaving us awed, amused, and haunted.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com