Under the Silver Lake is an unwieldy, weirdly ambitious film that loves to hate L.A.

David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the horror hit It Follows stars Andrew Garfield as a stoner fuckboi “investigating” a girl’s disappearance.

Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothing like ’em nowhere

— Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”

I’ve never physically been to Los Angeles, but I’m fairly certain that I could bullshit my way through making you believe that I have. It’s such a constant in the media landscape that you practically can’t consume anything without consuming a bit of L.A. with it: the la Brea tarpits, Barney’s Beanery, the Grove, Little Dom’s, the gross lake in MacArthur Park, the hipsters in Silver Lake, the Hollywood Forever cemetery etc. Los Angeles is a place where you have to drive everywhere to the point where traffic quite literally dictates your life, where the rich and powerful literally live above the plebe, where young women and men congregate to have their dreams broken.

The prototypical Angeleno in fiction is a lazy manchild (if male) and a beautiful, naive would-be actress (if female). The recurring thing about people who live in L.A. is that a) they probably weren’t born there; b) they love to hate Los Angeles. We know full well they’re not going anywhere – even when wildfires literally threaten their lives, Angelenos will still consider that a fair trade-off considering, you know, it snows elsewhere — and yet every love letter to Los Angeles is written in poisoned ink.

I’m being reductive and taking shortcuts, but this kind of Randy Newman-esque take certainly drives David Robert Mitchell’s unwieldy, weirdly ambitious Under the Silver Lake, which reads halfway between an adoring letter to the City of Angels and a rambling stream-of-consciousness diatribe delivered at full volume as he drives back to his native Michigan. Mitchell has chosen to follow up his breakout hit It Follows with something that feels a lot more personal despite its scope and somewhat detached faux-noir affectation, a kind of dark-night-of-the-soul crouched in adoration for L.A.’s shabbiness and the way it’s been depicted in the past 100 years of filmmaking. There’s also more than a little bit of fuck-the-world fragile-male-ego bitterness here, but we’ll get to that later.

Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a ne’er-do-well layabout with very few hobbies to occupy his time. Seemingly jobless for some time, Sam is a mere five days from eviction when the movie opens, but he seems rather unconcerned with this pressing matter. Instead, he spends his days spying on the women in his apartment complex and casually hooking up with an actress (Riki Lindhome) who seemingly always shows up at his place on her way to or from an audition. One night, he meets Sarah (Riley Keough), another resident of the apartment complex; they spend an evening hanging out and she agrees to go on a date — only to disappear into thin air the next day. The super tells Sam that she just decided to move overnight, but Sam suspects something more sinister is afoot, so he launches a haphazard, stoney quest amongst the L.A. nightlife in order to figure out what happened to her.

Riley Keough in Under the Silver Lake

I’ve never met David Robert Mitchell and thus I cannot make any claims to the inspiration for this movie, but I’m willing to bet that the germ of the idea happened after a bad break-up, during a professional slump… perhaps soon after moving to Los Angeles. Under the Silver Lake is filled to the brim with swipes at women of all stripes, from performance artists to starlets to sex workers to the hippyish woman who tends to her birds topless across the way. (Sam has sex with some of them — others he wants to have sex with before shit goes south. In one disconcerting sequence, he and a friend played by Topher Grace fly a drone to a woman’s house and watch her take her shirt off and cry.) It’s a hallucinatory, somewhat Lynchian paranoid noir in which almost everyone else seems to have no inner life by design: sexy puppets and the powerful, shadowy men that make them dance. It would feel patronizing and misogynistic if the film wasn’t so aggressively committed to its trance-like weirdness, its disorienting patter designed to confuse and obliterate.

Suffice to say that there’s a lot going on in here: a serial murder of dogs, conspiracy theories, hobo signs, puzzles, a goth-pop band fronted by a nubile young man with the ostentatious moniker of Jesus, backwards messages in records, coded zines, underground bunkers, cold-blooded murder. Under the Silver Lake’s outsized ambition is both its strong suit and its biggest flaw, spooling out eternally like the unholy lovechild of Southland Tales, The Long Goodbye’s and the show Love on Netflix. Mitchell’s mess of ideas is appreciably weird and ambitious and, for all of the film’s flaws, you certainly can’t call it predictable.

A lot of the best stuff in Under the Silver Lake is the stuff that comes directly from Mitchell’s plentiful (and, in many cases, rather heady) influences: the narcotic mix of hangdog noir, Pynchonesque fuckery, slapstick comedy and Sunset Boulevard-ish cynicism. Garfield proves to be a very pliable (if not exactly likeable, though I doubt that’s the point) lead, bustled about by the film’s elastic, unknowable twists and turns. When it really digs in to the weirdness, Under the Silver Lake can be rather electric — but knowing when to quit is a more difficult concept to grasp.

I also think that all of that stuff feels like obfuscation, piling on layers of paranoid puzzle-solving and shaggy-dog dead ends in order to add meat on the bone of a movie that’s ultimately a zoned-out, tapped-in version of something like 500 Days of Summer in which a fuckboi learns exactly what led him to be the failure he is. Late in Under the Silver Lake, Sam comes across a woman we learn is his ex — and suddenly the film’s purpose sharpens. All of it suddenly feels like a worst-case scenario horror story about dating in Hollywood, where being an apathetic dude that literally smells like skunk (long story) and shows up to a party in pyjamas will still get you laid but won’t bring her back.

Maybe I’m simplifying it too much; perhaps film bros will accuse me of virtue signalling, and maybe I’m choosing not to see the forest for the trees by focusing on a particular tree. It’s possible: one of the strengths of the film is how dense and complicated it gets without ever feeling the need to untangle that mess. The biggest, most sprawling and messy films always seem the most personal to me and, at the risk of spending this entire review doing some cheap psychoanalysis of the director, he certainly seems to have worked through something here.

Ultimately, the entirety of Under the Silver Lake feels like a metaphor for the very specific American dream of show business. You move to Los Angeles and you seemingly do nothing all day, surrounded by the vestiges of the has-beens and never-weres. You meet women who always seem to have somewhere to be and someone to know. Sometimes, you meet people and they disappear — they seem trapped in unknowable upper spheres and that’s considered success. Your best friends are interchangeable (most of the characters in the film don’t have names at all) and can be gone at a moment’s notice. The things you want prove not to be the things you want once you get them, and you’ll never know the whole truth — just the path to more secrets. It’s pretty dense and complex, I suppose, but it also has that hermetic L.A. thing about it. Ultimately, Under the Silver Lake will likely prove popular to all the people it purports to skewer. For the rest of us, well — it’s an L.A. thing. ■

Under the Silver Lake opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, Dec 14. Watch the trailer here: