Writer/director David Robert Mitchell made quite the splash with his second feature, It Follows. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, the film was a surprise hit of the festival, winning rave reviews from critics and being picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company for wide release across the world, eventually making over $20 million at the box office against its $2 million budget. Robert Mitchell returned to Cannes four years later with his follow up, Under the Silver Lake, now graduated to the shortlist for the Palme d’Or. Working with an increased budget and a cast including Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough and Topher Grace, the film was one of the festival’s most anticipated features.
However, Under the Silver Lake played to decidedly mixed reviews from critics (strongly divided would be an understatement) and ended the festival as a controversial footnote. Now, following a few bump-backs by distributor A24 the film has finally made it to the UK market, playing at just one cinema in London (The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square) and available on digital VOD platforms.
Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a pop-culture and conspiracy theory obsessed aimless young man living in present day Los Angeles. With no job and seriously behind on his rent Sam seems to live with no direction, spying on his topless neighbour as she waters her plants and feeds her pets, yet when he has sexual intercourse with an acquaintance who drops by they are both more interested by what is happening on TV. One day he spies at the pool a new neighbour, Riley Keough’s Sarah; blonde in a white bikini, she instantly grabs Sam’s attention. After smoking a joint together and sharing one kiss she tells Sam to come back to her apartment the next day. However, when he does, Sam finds the apartment empty, Sarah and her friends having moved out in the middle of the night with no explanation. So leads Sam on his own personal-quest through a very Lynchian underbelly of Los Angeles as he tries to find out what happened to Sarah.
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Under the Silver Lake is both thematically and aesthetically a densely rich work. Robert Mitchell frames his narrative as a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery, but instead of Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe, effortlessly cool trading barbs with Lauren Bacall, we follow the dishevelled Sam as he delves deeper into the underbelly of Los Angeles. What stops the film from becoming a hipster parody though is its very relevant examination of contemporary sexual politics, identity and the media’s objectification of women (particularly from Hollywood) and its self-awareness. Sam is a loser and his quest ludicrous; and the film knows that.
As a film and pop-culture enthusiast (his apartment is covered in posters for Hitchcock films and classic Universal horror) Sam seeks to give his aimless life meaning through his obsessions, whether it be the codes he believes are implanted in the media or the mysterious disappearance of Sarah. It is a pretty obvious takedown by Robert Mitchell of men who use their interests as an escape from real-life, using them as a shield against reality. Sam has four days to pay his rent or face eviction. However, this problem takes a back-seat compared to a mystery in which clues can be found through 30-year-old cereal packets.
Sam is a loser and everyone can see it apart from him. At one point, a skunk sprays him, so he smells so bad that people can literally smell him coming before he speaks to them and can stay way clear. Andrew Garfield delivers a very impressive performance as Sam; as a character he is so off-putting that it could be difficult to empathise with him, but Garfield gives Sam a wide-eyed nervous quality that makes him almost likeable (or pitiable, depending how you feel).
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Robert Mitchell is obviously a film-fanatic as well and he fills Under the Silver Lake with visual references and little ‘Easter eggs’ to cinema’s history. When Sam follows a trio of woman across town in his car Robert Mitchell makes obvious reference to James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo. In an example of the film’s clever wit, the pursuit then progresses from cars to pedalos. Scenes set in a Hollywood graveyard effectively list the film’s reference points on gravestones (Sam evening wakes up at the foot of Hitchcock’s headstone).
Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis gives the film a rich, over-saturated look, which accentuates the harsh Californian sun. Shooting in predominantly wide-lenses and framing subjects most often in the middle of the screen, Gioulakis and Robert Mitchell both interrogate their characters and lend cinematic scope to a film that is often shot in cramped apartments and familiar locations (bookshops, bars, on the streets). Disasterpeace’s wonderful score references the classic Hollywood work by composers such as Max Stiener and Bernard Herrmann. Full of trumpets and sultry strings, it provides a constant audio reference to the classic detective films Robert Mitchell is influenced by.
Where Robert Mitchell’s film is ambitious though, it is also indulgent. Running at 139 minutes it does drag in parts and could have done with some further tightening in the edit. A common complaint from Cannes, there were rumours that Robert Mitchell had gone back into the edit following the negative response from the festival; a rumour A24 have strongly denied. Also, Robert Mitchell takes aim at such a wide range of subjects with his narrative that it can give the film a scattershot feel that touches on too much without really exploring enough. Particularly it appears Robert Mitchell critics Hollywood’s objectification of women as blank sex symbols. His film arguably does this itself to a certain degree.
Under the Silver Lake is incredibly ambitious and continues David Robert Mitchell’s technique of using genre to pick apart narrative themes through subtext. If the ambition of the piece sometimes get away from the filmmaker, it is never less than intriguing and enjoyable, anchored by a very strong performance from Garfield.