AFI Film Fest Review: ‘Under the Silver Lake’ Bathes East Los Angeles in Baffling Mystery

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2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: David Robert Mitchell’s second feature, “It Follows,” serves as an allegory on the fear surrounding sexually transmitted diseases. Transitioning from horror to neo-noir with “Under the Silver Lake,” Mitchell once again infiltrates the hyperactive mind of paranoid youth. Despite being in his early thirties, neurotic ne’er-do-well Sam (Andrew Garfield) is plagued by the immaturity that befalls his generation. Rather than focus on his own forward momentum, Sam – like so many young adults caught in stasis – is inundated by social media and other advertisement merchandise he’s hoarded over the years.

Any influx of consumable data is reconfigured in Sam’s mind as some kind of deeper meaning. Every symbol, person or pop culture content is part of a bigger conspiracy at play. In other words, because nothing meaningful is going on in Sam’s life, he’s obsessed with finding meaning elsewhere as a way to avoid self-examination. The problem with David Robert Mitchell is he exploits the genre to justify Sam’s conspiracy theorist delusions rather than tell an engrossing cautionary tale of worthy benefit.

There’s an inherent “straight white male”-ness to the narrative that often robs itself of both credibility and mass appeal. Sam lives in an affluent part of East Los Angeles (Silver Lake) but cannot afford his rent. In spite of his landlord’s firm eviction promise should Sam fail to provide the livable funds, our protagonist remains unconcerned. He carries cash at all times, although the movie fails to provide a reason behind this income. Sam attends sharply-dressed rooftop parties wearing either pajamas or tattered clothes and still manages to attract any woman he desires. At a certain point, he even comes with his skunk stench. Incredulously, that has zero effect in repelling the women he lusts after.

Everything comes so easily to a man who’s out of his league in every respect. Sam’s slew of good fortune despite his dire housing circumstance isn’t condemned, satirized or open to conversation – it’s assumed normalcy! Adding insult to injury is the dearth of people of color among the Angelino crowd, and zilch when it comes LGBTQ representation. It’s almost as if David Robert Mitchell learned nothing from the “La La Land” backlash. Sadly, the days of auteurs recreating Tinseltown in their own image and fantasies are far from over.

There’s plot in the film, I promise, but it’s so extravagant in its convolution that it’s impossible to discern reality from narcissistic dream. Easier to follow than Paul Thomas Anderson’s bumbling “Inherent Vice” but less masterful in thematic execution than David Lynch’s enigmatic “Mulholland Drive,” “Under the Silver Lake” is a mystery predicated on bored fixation. Since peeping on his neighbor’s sunbathing habits isn’t enough, Sam finds more reasons to salivate when he spies a new tenant lounging by the pool. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis provides a voyeuristic gaze on this mystery blonde, Sarah (Riley Keough), who is comfortable enough inviting Sam into her home for a drink. She’s also at the adorable mercy of her small white pooch who fancies Sam’s interest.

There’s been a string of grizzly dog deaths lately, and a local comic strip writer has released fan-fiction in response. The author reopens an urban myth of the area by purporting the existence of a canine serial killer. However, that’s not the only murderer on the loose. There’s apparently a woman with an owl mask who slices men’s throats in their sleep when they get too close to unveiling the real strings running Los Angeles. These fables are stimulating for a guy like Sam with nothing to do but read old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power Magazine.

Before things get too steamy with Sarah, a guy with an eye patch and two female companions walk into the apartment. Sarah ushers Sam to go, and while at first reluctant, he eventually leaves Sarah behind with her strange pals. The next day Sarah becomes a lady vanished. It’s not long after that a major billionaire previously missing turns up dead in a car explosion. Pulled from the wreckage are the remains of a dog and a white sun hat that’s identical to the one Sarah wore.

This news obviously gets Sam triggered, and thus he appoints himself lead detective on the case. Desperately needing to know her fate, Sam goes to many absurd lengths to get his answer. This leads him to skyscraper soirees and underground dance lairs, whereupon he surmises that everything in the city is somehow interconnected and codified. There isn’t much enlightenment surrounding Sam’s eureka moments, but David Robert Mitchell wants audiences to have a grand time pretending there might be.

As Sam, Andrew Garfield delivers an astounding performance of disheveled lunacy. The Oscar-nominated actor is ironically attuned to the very aloofness he exudes. Unfortunately, the character is an utter handful who will draw the slimmest of sympathies. Disasterpiece returns as Robert Mitchell’s music collaborator, and again composes a spine-tingling score that effectively jolts. The reservoir scene (as depicted in the poster) is a prime example of music swelling to pitch-perfect dissonance, underscoring the lethal thrills of the genre.

The disappointment lies in how much the story’s politics anchor down the craft. The film has been pushed several times now, and perhaps it’s because it’s seeking an audience that no longer exists. The rampant machismo that fueled so much of “film noir” past desperately tries to gain new footing in the form of Garfield’s lanky neophyte antihero.

There’s certainly transfixing sequences worth dissecting, not to mention an inventive play on the “twist,” where it’s not so much revealed as it is unspoken. Cameos by Topher Grace and Jimmi Simpson (playing two different types of opportunistic creeps) make little dent. Nothing rises to the level of innovation to offset the lecherous motivations that spur Sam’s quest. “Under the Silver Lake” unsuccessfully attempts to persuade moviegoers that awareness is the best defense against growing social instability. What should be instilled is the fear of unleashing more neurotic crusaders of conspiracy “truth” onto the populace.

“Under the Silver Lake” is distributed by A24 and will be released theatrically on April 19th, 2019

GRADE: (★★½)

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