Having a big surprise cult smash hit can be a mixed blessing. Of course, it gives a director the opportunity to make more work, but it also saddles them with a significant amount of expectation. David Robert Mitchell’s second movie, It Follows, was one of the most inventive horror movies of the decade and put a light on Mitchell as a director to watch. Expectation doesn’t help his follow-up, which very deliberately does not give its audience anything like the same experience as It Follows.
It could be said that the film is successful in its aim even though most of its viewers will leave completely baffled. It is clearly intentionally baffling. It’s a garble of surreal ideas, only very loosely pinned to something you could reasonably call a plot. Think David Lynch on a lower intensity setting. The difficulty with that approach is that your weirdness has to be riveting, so your audience is enthralled by your dream logic. If it doesn’t work, they’re just confused. Under The Silver Lake has a lot that enthralls but probably more that merely confuses.
As much as the plot can be explained, it centres on Andrew Garfield as Sam, a man mooching about in Los Angeles, filling jobless days with conspiracy theories, masturbation and leering at his neighbour (Riley Keogh). One day, she’s not there any more. Sam becomes convinced there’s been foul play and mounts a mission to find her. The mission takes in a prophetic comic book, a man who wrote every song you’ve ever heard, a secret cult and The Legend of Zelda.
Visually, it’s gorgeous, giving LA a modern film noir look, with framing that could be ripped out of an old detective comic book but filled with pop art candy colours. Its glossy, off-beat looks make it much easier to sink into, like flicking through a high-end fashion magazine that contains lots to look at but maybe nothing worth reading. Garfield gives it a sturdy core, maintaining restrained as the movie blurs around him.
It’s so close to being great, but its mystery doesn’t have enough atmosphere or darkness to really suck you in. Its dig into the dark bits of Hollywood feels like a path too well trodden. You’re clearly not supposed to be able to make sense of every gobbet of information it flings at you, but it should make you want to. Under The Silver Lake feels lightweight when it should feel oppressive. It has a lot of lovely ideas, there’s just not enough to really dive into.