Review: Under the Silver Lake (2019)

David Robert Mitchell is either the most pretentious guy on the planet, or he’s having a good laugh at everyone’s expense.

Under The Silver Lake is a film starring Andrew Garfield as an irredeemable loser living in LA. And he’s fantastic in this role. I don’t know if I should feel sorry for the guy in that I didn’t buy him as Spider-Man (which gets referenced in the movie), but I completely buy him as an unsympathetic lowlife. He’s twitchy and smelly, yet manages to have no problem bedding multiple women. One day, his attractive neighbor (Riley Keough) mysteriously disappears after she’d said she was going to sleep with him. Garfield suddenly comes to life and turns into an Chinatown‘s J.J. Gittes.

As Garfield follows a string of clues, the symbolism becomes oppressive to a fault. There’s someone in the neighborhood called the Dog Killer, who’s name as written on a glass window is seen in reverse as … “GOD”. Whoa! Then there’s a popular band that pops up now and then called “Jesus and the Brides of Dracula.” The phrase: “Have you found Jesus?” is repeated quite often. There’s a repeated visual theme of eyes, and a naked lady assassin in an owl mask stalks our hero. It’s so obvious and over the top, and it does make you wonder if that was the point. There are no straight-forward answers, and the deeper you go the more absurd things get.

Under the Silver Lake is a hard movie to pin down. There are funny moments, but it’s not a direct parody of a Raymond Chandler detective story like The Big Lebowski was. There are moments of true creepiness and horror. Gross-out moments, too. (At one point, you WILL see the contents of a toilet bowl.) Most shocking of all, there are moments of emotional honesty. Some of the most jarring moments in the movie are when Garfield realizes that a target of his voyeurism is a human being.

Most of the time, a random assemblage of disconnected scenes would point to an incoherent mess of a movie. I never get the sense that Mitchell didn’t know what he was doing, though. There is a through-line to the mystery, with each new discovery building on a theme about the inevitable corruption of wealthy people in Hollywood. He also seems to take a perverse glee in both dismissing anyone trying to make sense of the movie and in providing actual tantalizing conspiracy nuggets that you can’t help but be taken by. A Hobo King who wanders underground tunnels is silly, but when an elderly songwriter explains his role in the entertainment industry you can’t help but nod your head and agree.

Wikipedia pegs this movie as a neo-noir. Sharp film buffs have identified callbacks to diverse influences that include Bernard Herrmann and David Lynch. I propose, though, that Under the Silver Lake is really a neo-giallo. The scenery is garish and eye-catching. At various points women hand out giant novelty cherries and patrons dine on tombstones. It’s a nonsensical phatasmagoria surrounding a mystery that might not be as important as it seems. Who cares if the fate of Andrew Garfield’s attractive neighbor is solved or not? Under the Silver Lake is about the mood… which is why, as the conspiracy becomes stranger and goofier, it becomes more and more apparent that the plot was only ever there to move things along from one fascinating set-piece to another.

Recommendation: Tasha Robinson over at The Next Picture Show’s assessment was better than anything I could come up with. She both loved and hated this movie. I’m inching toward the “love” part. The visuals, which are quite impressive, would be too precious and pretentious if it wasn’t clear that Mitchell wasn’t approaching at least some of it with tongue firmly in cheek.

4 out of 5 stars.