“This entire generation of men is obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens. It used to be a hundred years ago, you know, any moron could kind of wander through the woods and look behind a rock or some shed and discover some cool new thing. Not anymore. Where’s the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery, because there’s none left.”
This short speech given by Topher Grace in Under the Silver Lake is one of the few moments in this bizarre neo-noir when the true sentiments of writer/director David Robert Mitchell can be seen shining through. For most of its runtime, Mitchell has his tongue so far up his cheek that it can be hard to see what he is getting at, but in this conversation, held over a game of Super Mario, he appears to concede that there are no more stories left to tell, so he opts for re-telling stories that have already been told, just with a post-ironic smirk.
There’s a resemblance at the beginning here to the Nolan Brothers’ Memento or Lee Chang-dong’s recent Burning in that you can’t be entirely sure whether the mystery might not just be in the protagonist’s head, created by his longing for a mystery to investigate, as the gangling and awkward Sam (Andrew Garfield, channelling Anthony Perkins and Jack Lemmon) is drawn into a conspiracy around the disappearance of his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough). What follows is an investigative scavenger hunt through L.A., as Sam meets an assortment of colourful personalities and tries to untangle a net of clues either trivial or monumental, interrupted periodically by the director’s strange preoccupation with scatological humour and sudden bursts of graphic violence directed at old men, young boys, and dogs. It more than slightly evokes an updated Inherent Vice, with Garfield as a less stoned but equally bewildered modern day version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello.
But where Mitchell seems to fancy himself a second Thomas Pynchon, his finished product ends up closer to the lewd assembly of Tinseltown clichés that was Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel. Mitchell sets scenes at iconic locations like the Griffith Observatory or Hollywood Forever Cemetery and evokes classic Californian myths like hippie cults or satanic messages hidden in pop music, but adds nothing except an increasingly annoying amount of self-awareness. More than once in Under the Silver Lake, we see Sam having a conversation with someone, and at the end of the scene, the characters move away or the camera pans to a different angle to reveal that the name of a celebrity has been hiding in plain sight behind them, engraved in a table or a tombstone – Alfred Hitchcock, Jayne Mansfield, Janet Gaynor. In case you were going to complain that these stories have been told before, Mitchell made sure to get there first and to let you know that he knows it too.
Beyond mere nods to the Golden Age of cinema, Mitchell recreates entire scenes from Rear Window and Jaws, and brings to mind plenty of other, less immediate touchpoints, likeBryan Bertino’s The Strangers. The lines of what is intended and what isn’t become fuzzy, as Mitchell employs such a nauseatingly referential style, littering the background of his frames with movie posters and televisions showing Hollywood classics, that my brain involuntarily started scouring the screen for more. And that’s probably exactly what Mitchell wanted.
Given how cleverly he retrofitted the tropes of slasher horror to tell a story about burgeoning teenage sexuality in the 2014 It Follows, I kept expecting something more from Under the Silver Lake than glib jokes about the insincerity of the film industry. Keough’s presence seemed initially promising in that regard. The actress has recently built up a diverse roster of roles challenging preconceptions about femininity and female sexuality in films like American Honey, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Lars von Trier’s recent masterpiece The House That Jack Built, as well as in her starring role in the first series of The Girlfriend Experience as an inscrutable, vaguely sociopathic law student turned escort.
In Under the Silver Lake, Keough’s Sarah is first seen strutting around in a bathing suit, Sam’s binoculars voyeuristically focussing on her behind. But after a brief sex-less liaison between the two, she then disappears completely until the very end of the film, returning only for a dream sequence in which she imitates the ultimate cinematic symbol of desire, Marilyn Monroe, in the famous pool scene from Something’s Got to Give.
Mitchell practises this “sexualisation in lieu of characterisation” technique on several occasions, as with Riki Lindhome’s character, credited as “The Actress”, who stops by Sam’s every now and then after auditions, dressed in sexual role-play costumes like a dirndl or a nurse’s outfit for quick, unromantic sex. Of course Mitchell is aware of this, but his approach to it can be seen in a sequence when Sam (and Mitchell’s camera) once again follow revealingly dressed young women and zoom in on their backsides, only to reveal that the place they are going to is a “film audition”, held in a dodgy garage by an old, fat, and greasy man. “Isn’t Hollywood sexist?”, Mitchell asks, but offers nothing but more irony.
It’s not just the female characters that get the short end of the stick, though. The film is filled with familiar faces like Jimmi Simpson, Zosia Mamet, and Patrick Fischler, each of them in a visible state of confusion about what to do with their characters. Narratively, too, Under the Silver Lake is a mess, in desperate need of an edit at a dreary 139 minutes and stretching its offensively anticlimactic ending out for as far as it can. Even in the technical departments, it retains almost none of the glimmer from It Follows, despite maintaining most of the same crew. Composer Disasterpeace, who provided such a dark and pulsating synth soundtrack to that film, has here opted for an orchestral score in the classic style of Bernard Herrmann or Alfred Newman, which is an intriguingly anachronistic touch at first, but is soon subsumed into the film’s enervating meta commentary by Mitchell’s constant foregrounded use of it, another opportunity for him to hammer home the fact that this is a movie about “the movies” and that, yes, he went to film school. Here’s hoping that for his next film, Mitchell finds that there still are some mysteries left to tell.