‘Under the Silver Lake’ is a noir where the sun shines
Here are the three primary audiences for David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake”:
• Fans of LA tales of mystery and paranoia, of film noir and Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon.
• Lovers of classic Hollywood movies and the many ways you can riff on them.
• Anyone perversely fascinated by a successful young director betting the farm on a wildly ambitious, largely inscrutable follow-up (cf. Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” Spielberg’s “1941,” Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”).
If you somehow find yourself within the Venn diagram overlap of these niches — and some of us do — hoo-boy, will Mitchell’s madhouse of a movie be for you. Others should abandon all hope before entering here.
Mitchell broke through in 2014 with the artful psychological horror movie “It Follows,” a sort of vampiric STD metaphor with a brooding miasma of unease. For his third film (the first was 2010’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover”), he has seemingly poured every one of his cinematic, literary, and musical influences into a blender and hit puree.
The first 20 minutes alone are a high-wire mash-up of two Hitchcock classics, “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” with Andrew Garfield playing a sort of a dissolute millennial Jimmy Stewart in 2011 Los Angeles. His character, Sam, lives in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood but is jobless, about to become homeless, and well on the way down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theorizing. Not that events don’t seem to back him up: a mysterious dog killer terrorizing the area; a millionaire philanthropist (Chris Gann) gone missing then found dead; legends of a naked owl lady prowling the night and seducing victims to their deaths.
More pressing to Sam is the disappearance of Sarah (Riley Keough), a blonde beauty whom he spies on a la “Rear Window” across the apartment complex courtyard as she swims nude a la Marilyn Monroe in “Something’s Got to Give.” Following leads, he starts trailing a cryptic trio of women (Zosia Mamet of “Girls” among them) across LA just as Stewart navigated the hills of San Francisco after Kim Novak. The soundtrack music by Disasterpeace (a.k.a. Richard Vreeland) swoons in and out of focus like a vintage Bernard Herrmann score. The film’s entire first act is really one long Vertigasm.
Eventually, Sam starts discerning patterns within patterns as the plot leads him in and around greater Hollywood, and so do we. Specifically, ongoing waves of dangerous females, including two C-grade movie stars with a sideline in prostitution (India Menuez and Sydney Sweeny), a flirty balloon dancer (Grace Van Patten), and the Brides of Dracula, three back-up singers for a vaguely Manson-esque rock star named Jesus (Luke Baines).
Do the band’s lyrics contain coded messages? Does the wealthy 1 percent use our movies and music to communicate in ways we lesser beings can’t quite decipher? What are those tunnels beneath LA’s famed Griffith Observatory? Do they have anything to do with the ancient songwriter holed up in a mansion like the general in Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and who has had a hand in every hit song you’ve ever loved (including Nirvana’s “Nevermind”)?
“Under the Silver Lake” unfolds in the same cinematic wheelhouse as Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” “Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon adaptation, “Inherent Vice,” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” — films in which mysteries lead only to further mysteries and the rot runs deep under sunny California skies. (The daddy of the genre is “Chinatown,” of course, and the granddaddy via London is “Blow-up.”) Unlike any of those movies, though, the dread in Mitchell’s film never cuts to the bone, because we never really care about his characters.
Garfield’s Sam is the only character in the traditional sense, anyway, and he’s off the deep end early and often. (It’s a darkly funny performance nevertheless.) The rest are freaks and phantasms, the lone exception being Callie Hernandez as the millionaire’s daughter, who manages to seem wise and lost and sad before vanishing from the action. Even an expert juggler can’t keep this many Wiffle balls in the air for 139 minutes, and Mitchell doesn’t; the ending to his tale is particularly limp and unsatisfying.
I will say this: If a talented filmmaker opening the throttle of his imagination as wide as it can go appeals to you, you should give “Under the Silver Lake” a look. (It’s playing this weekend at the Brattle in Harvard Square but is also available on demand.) You may well hate it. (I swung between fascination and fatigue, admiration and annoyance. But, then, any movie with a palpable crush on 1930s film star Janet Gaynor has my attention.) And it may well be that this is something Mitchell had to get out of his system before moving on to other, more conventional movies. Those movies may even be better. But I doubt they’ll be as recklessly inspired.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough. At the Brattle. 139 minutes. R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language throughout, and drug use)