There’s a moment in Under the Silver Lake – the third film from director David Robert Mitchell, after the hit horror It Follows – where Sam, the aimless slacker at the heart of this delirious, Los Angeles neo-noir, beats up a pair of teenagers who are spraying neighbourhood cars with glue. When he wakes the next morning, Sam finds his hands are still sticky; reaching for the nearest object with which to remove the residue, he happens upon an old Spiderman comic. The would-be sleuth is played by the star of the Amazing Spiderman, Andrew Garfield. Very post-modern.
Just like acting luminaries, Clive Owen, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet, Garfield also appeared at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre early in his career: in his case, it was the early noughties a productions of Kes. As Billy Casper, he was a fidgety bundle of engaging, nervous energy. I was impressed enough to track him down in the bar afterwards and tell him as much. Garfield was flattered, thanked me, and then disappeared outside for a cigarette (he returned to the Royal Exchange a year later in Romeo and Juliet).
I have followed his career with interest ever since: from acclaimed turns in gritty C4 dramas like Red Riding and Boy A, to middlebrow movies like Never Let Me Go, and The Social Network, to his brief stint as Peter Parker, in a pair of movies which were successful but possibly not successful enough. Garfield was unceremoniously dropped from the Spiderman franchise but emerged emboldened, moving into more adult fare: Martin Scorcese’s Silence, and an Oscar nominated turn in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
As Sam, Garfield gives possibly the most layered performance of his young career, though sadly very few people have seen Under the Silver Lake. Due in 2018, it received a fleeting theatrical release in Spring 2019, before streaming service MUBI (it’s now out on DVD). Mitchell Green’s film comes on like Goonies meets Mulholland Drive, or Rear Window crossed with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sam is a character with an apartment and a car but no apparent career. Growing up in a post VCR world, his interests are those of the average geek: arcade games, graphic novels, and especially quiz shows. He obsessively watches video tapes of TV hostess Vanna White, convinced her mannered camera glances contain hidden significance.
Sam has a regular sex life, but romantic intimacy appears outside his comfort zone. One day, he spies new neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough, who is, coincidentally, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley; yes, really), in the complex swimming pool. They hang out in Sarah’s apartment, and he experiences something foreign – an emotional connection. The following day, the lady has vanished. Sam embarks upon a selfless, surreal quest to uncover the truth of her disappearance, which leads him across the city, and down a rabbit hole of conspiracy, scandal and murder.
Sam seeks assistance from a fellow comic fan, the brains behind a local fanzine about urban myths (brought to thrilling life in a short, chiaroscuro animation). ‘Comic Fan’ enlightens Sam on the finer points of the Hobo code; a guide book of arcane symbols, created during the Great Depression, to help transients navigate their way across country (significantly, this character is played by Patrick Fischler, who appeared in Mulholland Drive as a man with a recurring nightmare about a dumpster dwelling down-and-out).
The vagrant theme continues with the appearance of the self-proclaimed Homeless King (David Yow). Sam also crosses paths with the glittery Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten). The motives of these characters are ambiguous; are they here to help or hinder? There are sub-plots about a city dog killer, and a rock band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, whose songs may contain subliminal messages. This leads to the film’s most audacious encounter, with the mansion dwelling musician known as ‘Songwriter’ (Jeremy Bob). ‘Songwriter’ performs a medley of anthems he claims to have written (‘I Want it That Way’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’) ‘I created so many of the things you care about’, he smirks, ‘when you were 15 and rebelling, you were rebelling to my music!’ In this alternate America, Kurt Cobain was a corporate shill, with nothing original to say.
Ultimately, Silver Lake is a 133-minute long shaggy dog story. But it’s the ride that counts, not the destination. Even the haters have been forced to praise Mitchell’s ambition. This is a film designed for study groups and repeat viewings.
Director Ridley Scott, in a documentary on the legacy of Blade Runner, recalled the indifferent response the film received on original release; being ahead of your time, he argues, is just as bad as being behind the times. In 2019, David Robert Mitchell finds himself in the same predicament; it may take a while for the world to catch up.★ ★ ★ ★
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE David Robert Mitchell is available to watch on MUBI, iTUNES and DVD/BLU-RAY.