With “Under the Silver Lake” David Robert Mitchell follows his superb sophomore film – “It Follows,” a highlight of 21st century horror – with an odd shaggy dog story that melds L.A. stoner sagas, such as “Inherent Vice” and “The Big Lebowski,” with David Lynch atmosphere (think “Mulholland Drive”) and a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-will-stick vibe (think Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales”).
The result is an offbeat noir that leads up to a mostly unsatisfying conclusion, but remains consistently interesting along the way. Mood carries the film for much of its nearly two-hour-and-20-minute running time, even when its story veers in numerous directions.
Trying to sum up “Under the Silver Lake” is likely a fool’s errand, but suffice it to say that it concerns the exploits of Sam (Andrew Garfield), a Los Angeles layabout who spends much of his time obsessing over nonsense and bedding various women. The film’s nonchalant treatment of women as sex objects is its most displeasing factor.
Riley Keough’s Sarah, the film’s Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, catches Sam’s eye as she lounges by the pool of the complex in which they both live, blasting music and upsetting the aging nudist who lives with her loud parrot across from Sam. Sarah and Sam spend a chaste evening together smoking pot and they seem to click, but he is disturbed to find her gone the next day – her apartment completely abandoned with an ominous symbol painted on the wall.
Sam learns that this symbol hails from “the hobo code” and soon he starts spotting signseverywhere, from numbers on traffic signs to messages hidden in records that are played backwards. His investigation leads him to strange places – for example, an underground layer to which he is led by the Homeless King (David Yow) and a mansion where a man known as the Songwriter apparently crafts all of popular culture on his piano.
All of this may or may not have something to do with a series of dog murders and the death of a mogul, whose body is found charred in a burning car. Sam becomes enamored with a zine known as “Under the Silver Lake,” and he floats his numerous conspiracy theories to that publication’s author (played with creepy zeal by Patrick Fischler, who is no stranger to L.A. noirs). The film’s creepiest subplot – which involves a woman known as The Owl’s Kiss – is unveiled by Fischler’s character, and it pops up two more times in the picture’s outright scariest moments, even if the subplot itself is, much like many of Sam’s conspiracy theories, a road to nowhere.
“It Follows” was an uncommonly intelligent horror movie that was about much more than its designated storyline. It was also heavy on mood and featured an eerie score by Disasterpiece, which also provides the music for Mitchell’s latest film. It remains the pinnacle of Mitchell’s career at this point.
“Under the Silver Lake” has a fair amount going for it, even if all its various pieces don’t exactly fit into a completely satisfactory whole. The scene with the Songwriter is somewhat groan-inducing, and the solving of the film’s central mystery is a bit of a letdown. Regardless, “Under the Silver Lake” is worth watching – it’s a swing for the fences that defies categorization and manages to remain compelling even as it begins to make less and less sense.