Under the Silver Lake is a pretentious, self-indulgent, convoluted, overlong mess. Positioning itself as equal parts neo-noir and genre subversion, it is essentially a cross between David Lynch
's Mulholland Dr. (2001)
and Thomas Pynchon
's Inherent Vice (2009). With the major difference being that it's absolutely, unrelentingly terrible. As with Mitchell's previous films, Silver Lake works as both an example and a subversion of genre - it's a mystery noir à la Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
, The Long Goodbye (1973)
, and Chinatown (1974)
, but is also at pains to undermine and critique many of the generic markers found in such films. A 140-minute labyrinthine, paranoia-laden shaggy-dog story full of MacGuffins, false leads, narrative dead ends, and unexplained details, the film relocates the detective stories of Raymond Chandler
and Dashiell Hammett
to the chaotic postmodern era of cognitive semiotics where the relationship between signifier and signified is now so arbitrary that meaning-making itself has become a protean commodity. However, it is easily the most self-important piece of garbage I've seen in a long time; a philosophically juvenile rumination thoroughly convinced of its own portentousness. Fundamentally misogynistic, it's at least 45 minutes too long, with an unfocused narrative, poorly thought-out metaphors, and an insipid protagonist. The cinematography is pretty though.
Set in contemporary LA, Under the Silver Lake follows Sam (Andrew Garfield
), a 33-year-old man-child with no job, no ambition, and no direction, whose day consists of sitting on his balcony watching his neighbour (Wendy Vanden Heuvel
) parade around topless, having unfulfilling NSA sex with a friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome
), and visiting his drinking buddy (Topher Grace
) to use a drone to spy on women (it should tell you a bunch about the film that none of these three characters are even assigned a name). Out of the blue, he meets and instantly falls in love with Sarah (Riley Keough
), but when he visits her apartment the day after meeting her, he finds her gone and the apartment empty, apart from a shoebox with a photograph and a few trinkets, and a strange symbol painted on the wall. Although he later identifies Sarah as one of three women killed in a car crash alongside billionaire media mogul (and professional stuntman) Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann
), having recognised a hat found at the scene to be hers, he refuses to believe she's dead. And so begins an odyssey to track her down that ultimately involves, amongst other things, a hipster pirate, secret codes hidden in everyday objects, a glam rock band named Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, a dog murderer, a conspiracy theorist comic book writer (Patrick Fischler
), the Hobo Code, a vast network of underground tunnels, an actual literal homeless king (David Yow
), a helpful coyote, an unhelpful skunk, an escort agency staffed by former child-stars, a balloon dancer (Grace Van Patten
), a walled-off Xanadu-like mansion, a mysterious songwriter (Jeremy Bobb
) with a strange claim, a female serial killer who enters men's apartments wearing nothing but an owl mask, and a New Age cult lead by super-wealthy men.
Perhaps the most immediately obvious aspects of Silver Lake is the sheer range of homages that Mitchell includes at both plot and structural levels. Some of these homages are impressively handled, some not so much. Disasterpeace
's score, for example, and Mike Gioulakis
's cinematography are both extremely retro, serving to situate the film firmly in the formal styles of yesterday. Vreeland's score (although I didn't like it in and of itself) is a solid imitation of the work of composers such as Franz Waxman
and Bernard Herrmann
, whilst Gioulakis's photography, with its overly dramatic camera movements and crash zooms that seem to come out of nowhere, recalls the work of Robert Burks
and Sam Leavitt
Most of the other homages come at plot level, and although some are well integrated into the narrative, many feel shoehorned in, as if Mitchell is showing off his range of reference, so much so that the film essentially becomes pastiche. Examples include Sam's mother's obsession with Janet Gaynor
; Sam sitting on his balcony using binoculars to spy on people, á la L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart
) from Rear Window (1954)
; Sam and Sarah watching How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
; a brief glimpse of an Amazing Spider-Man comic (intertextual and self-reflexive, given Garfield's appearance as the titular character in two films); a visual quotation of Marilyn Monroe
in a swimming pool from the unfinished film, Something's Got to Give; the Brides of Dracula doing a cover of Lulu
's "To Sir with Love" from the film of the same name; a visit to Griffith Observatory from Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
; a very on-the-nose shot of a gravestone with the word "Hitchcock" on it; and a scene that references songs as varied as "I Love Rock 'n' Roll", "Where Everybody Knows Your Name", "I Want to Know What Love Is", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and "I Want it That Way". The most consistent referential touchstone, however, is David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Drive, an infinitely superior mystery thriller also set in the darker environs of LA involving a sprawling cast of strange characters.
Thematically, the film is all over the place, never settling on any one issue, instead jumping around like a hyperactive puppy trying to be in eight different places at once. Characters say things such as "who isn't being followed these days?" and "the ideology you thought you adopted through free will was actually subliminal messaging", but it's all meaningless in a narrative chaos where nothing is ever examined for more than a couple of minutes. Positing that pop culture has profound hidden meaning (in direct contrast to most cultural-anthropological thinking), the film is so imprecise and scattered that it's impossible to tell if Mitchell actually buys into the notion that schizophrenic conspiracies are all around us or if he's being facetious.
And yes, I understand what he's doing - presenting the film from the point of view of a pop culture-saturated Millennial who's easily distracted and hence keeps losing the run of his own story. However, Oliver Stone
did a far better job of depicting a similarly media-soaked shortened-attention span over 20 years ago with Natural Born Killers (1994)
. Easily the most interesting issue touched on is the concept that much of what has defined generations and been the artistic impetus behind and symbol of cultural revolutions throughout the 20th century all comes from the same corrupted and cynical place; the music that has most embodied rebellion and freedom is actually even more manufactured than the worst boy band could ever be. This is a fascinating and fundamentally postmodernist idea, but mere moments after introducing it, Mitchell abandons the theme entirely in favour of a piece of gratuitous violence which says nothing of interest about anything.
The most troubling thing about the film from a thematic point of view, however, is how it depicts women. Yes, it's partly about the male gaze and how Hollywood has a track record of objectifying women, especially in films of this nature, so a degree of objectification is necessary. But Mitchell does it to the point where critique simply becomes content - he doesn't need six women (only two of whom are even given names, and none of whom receive much in the way of characterisation) to throw themselves at Sam to adequately deconstruct the trope. Granted, his intentions may be noble; he is obviously side-lining the female characters with the goal of satirising male entitlement, but he is unable to distinguish between replication and repudiation. All the best intentions in the world don't alter the fact that the women in the film are wallpaper, and his attempt to critique Hollywood's tendency to depict women as such ends up as simply another example of the very trope he is setting out to critique. So all the unnecessary topless shots aren't exploitative you see, because irony!!
And as for Sam's quest to find Sarah? In Mulholland Drive, Lynch creates a beautiful and complex tapestry where everything has precise meaning, no wasted motion, no weirdness simply for weirdness sake. In Silver Lake, on the other hand, Mitchell just lobs anything and everything at the viewer whether it's ultimately significant or not. A pirate? Sure. A female serial killer? Why not. A dog murderer? Of course. A story that makes sense and deals with its themes coherently? Don't be ridiculous. It's like the worst type of student film where the filmmaker has been allowed to shoot whatever he wants, and ends up making something so convoluted that any meaning it may have becomes subsumed amongst self-important pretension.
Under the Silver Lake is a tiresome, self-important, overlong, intellectually juvenile mess. If Mitchell actually has anything to say about subliminal messaging, the commodification of women, wealth buying privileges even in the afterlife, the pervasiveness of pop culture, or conspiracy theories, it's lost within a painfully dull and self-indulgent plot. With Silver Lake, Mitchell has been allowed to play relatively unsupervised in the sandbox, and the results are disastrous; a swollen, self-admiring film that can't follow through on anything, thematically or narratively, a film that is totally and completely in love with itself.