REVIEW: Under the Silver Lake (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24

The following is a review of Under the Silver Lake — Directed by David Robert Mitchell.

In 2014, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was released to critical acclaim. It was one of the first horror films that I ever reviewed and I remember the film mostly for its riveting score and the unique premise of the film which was really more of a parable. In 2016, Mitchell shot his follow-up to the aforementioned horror film. His film, Under the Silver Lake, was eventually acquired by A24, and it competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

I remember watching the trailer and being intrigued by the cast and the mystery. It was meant to be released that summer, but then A24 pulled it from its release schedule. In 2019, Mitchell’s film was released without much fanfare. Supposedly, this was one of those polarizing films that you either hate or love. Recently, I found myself watching Mark Kermode’s review of Under the Silver Lake during which time I was struck by the severity of his reprimand as he proclaimed: “It’s so tooth-grindingly boring.” I’m a big fan of Mark Kermode, but, I have to say, I really dug Mitchell’s film.

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, which, like It Follows, is powered by a strong score by Richard Vreeland, tells a story about codes, conspiracy theories, and delusions of grandeur from the perspective of an aimless, soon-to-be homeless young man named Sam (played by Andrew Garfield). The unemployed and disheveled Sam spends his day peeping on his elderly, topless neighbor and whoever decides to sunbathe by his apartment complex’ pool.

On one fine morning, a young woman with an extravagant hat and a dog named Coca-Cola decides to lie by the pool. Her name is Sarah (played by Riley Keough), and when she sees him peeping on her, their paths cross. After spending the evening together in her apartment, he is escorted out when her roommates return home. Sarah promises to meet him again the next day, which Sam obviously agrees to.

However, when he returns to her apartment, he sees that it has been emptied completely and a mysterious symbol is spraypainted on the wall. In the days that follow he scrambles to find some clue as to why she has disappeared. He follows young women, jots down every odd number on scoreboards, and asks conspiracy theorists to unpack everything. But is something actually going on in Under the Silver Lake or is our protagonist jumping to conclusions and chasing dead-ends?

Mitchell’s film has been deemed ‘problematic’ by some, and even though I like the film as it is, I’m certainly not going to say these problematic elements are fabricated by its most harsh critics. Under the Silver Lake packs a messy punch, but, in my interpretation of the narrative, some of its problematic traits seem to be by design. Because Sam is meant to be an unlikable character. Sam objectifies the female characters, and I think he might suffer from the Madonna-Whore complex. In my mind, the film isn’t so much about the mystery as it is about the unreliable narrator and his loony conspiracy theories, his interpretation of the world, and his warped world-view.

Sam’s world is stylistic and it is tough to tell his dreams and his reality apart as they both feature scenes that end with women barking to the screen. Sam casually mentions dissatisfaction with his reality and is oblivious to the harassment that he subjects others to, as well as his own appearance and odor. A film about the nature of conspiracy theories and entitlement, the ending disparages the main character as his reasoning for wanting to solve the mystery is flimsy and questionable.

David Robert Mitchell’s stylish and maddeningly designed Under the Silver Lake is messy and chock-full of classic film references. Nevertheless, the films that Mitchell’s feature reminded me the most of were Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but I think Mitchell’s film is superior to them both.

The film also features one of Andrew Garfield’s best performances. I can’t quite say that I think it is his best, as I vastly prefer him in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and David Fincher’s The Social Network, but Garfield carries the film and infuses his unlikable character with a lot and makes his descent into madness enjoyable.

I think David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is a great original but comedic stoner film noir about an unreliable and narcissistic slacker who thinks up his own story, in which he is consequential, for the simple reason that he is disappointed with life. Mitchell has thrown a lot of different things towards the wall and I was surprised by how much stuck to it, for me. I thought it was genuinely scary in spurts and gripping from start to finish even if it may be incomprehensible at some points. It may not ultimately be all that satisfying as an unwieldy mystery, the protagonist, who, I contend, the film clearly scolds, may be unpleasant, but I dug what Mitchell was going for with his third film as a director.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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