Under the Silver Lake, the new film by writer-director David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), wants to be a treasure map. Packed with codes, coincidences, and callbacks, it practically begs for dissection, and the more exhaustive the better. As is fitting, or perhaps just predictable, for a neo-noir set in a hipster-ridden, Hollywood-adjacent pocket of L.A., the clues involve old-timey movie stars, ancient issues of Playboy, milquetoast satanism, hand-drawn zines, and lots of naked women. So here’s the hitch: Under the Silver Lake is so wonderfully barbed as a satire of the kinds of dudes who’d spend their time deciphering puzzle movies like this one—“An entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens,” tuts a character—that the film can’t help deflating when it demands the very thing it skewers.
Normally, a bungled sendup like this would annoy me terribly. (I’ll also add here that Under the Silver Lake halfheartedly attempts an exposé of the casual misogyny of its protagonist and showbiz at large but ends up giving in to its horndog impulses.) It doesn’t help that the plot is tortuous, and the resolution is an inarguable letdown. And yet! Mitchell’s ambitions, observations, and moods make the picture a dippy blast, like a hallucinatory trip that definitely goes on too long but is well worth the insights and surprises.
Andrew Garfield stars as our dick, an unemployed voyeur five days from eviction. After a flirty neighbor (Riley Keough) goes missing—even her furniture disappears overnight—Sam commits to finding her whereabouts, with nary a thought to his imminent homelessness. His sleuthing takes him to the backs of cereal boxes, the insides of Nintendo Power magazine, and his own numerological calculations on pizza-box lids, but also fancy, kitschy pool parties in downtown hotels that he can just get into, because a young, white, good-looking guy isn’t gonna be turned down for his ripped clothes or skunky stench. (I think Mitchell is saying that.) Sam’s guide through the first leg of his quest is a local zine artist (Patrick Fischler) who’s somehow even more pathetic, confirming Sam’s suspicions about subliminal messages in advertisements while jabbering on about dangers like succubuses in owl masks that even have our gullible cynic scratching his head.
Accompanied by an ironic, 1940s-style classic-noir score, Under the Silver Lake’s first hour contains its strongest scenes, as Mitchell reveals ever-newer depths to Sam’s lunacy and self-debasement. (At one point, a homeless man notes how bad Sam stinks.) Intriguingly, he’s always got a buddy to talk to—a loose confederation of failsons who enable each other’s worst tendencies, like a subreddit in real time. Those guys are preoccupied with the invisible alpha males running the world—a secret brotherhood supposedly sending hidden messages to each other through the media. It’s such a timely parody of a particular brand of paranoid, narcissistic masculinity that the film immediately diminishes when it turns out there is a conspiracy afoot, and that pop culture actually is being used to brainwash the masses.
Under the Silver Lake takes Sam all over his neighborhood and nowhere at once. He zips from parties to mountaintops, mansions to landmarks, but the faster he runs, the more we can smell the plot’s fumes. Still, the atmosphere remains enjoyable: Wafting through are a well-trained henchwoman (Zosia Mamet) who most certainly knows what happened to Sam’s missing neighbor, a faux-transgressive band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, and, most memorably, a rapacious songwriter (a scene-stealing Jeremy Bobb) who punctures the possibility of Sam ever escaping the prison of mass control with an aggressive piano medley of beloved pop tunes. The Lynchian impressionism that Mitchell strives for in the film’s latter half is a lot less successful than his straight-ahead caricature, particularly when the action veers into violence. But indelible, too, is Sam’s realization that the power and exclusivity he envies so much is nearly always dedicated to buying higher levels of that same self-segregation.
I haven’t yet mentioned the mysterious death of a billionaire that overtakes the city as its primary cultural phenomenon, or the dog named Coca-Cola, or what coyotes, James Dean, and Wheel of Fortune have to do with all this. Garfield is altogether convincing as a dirtbag skating by as a decent dude, but the movie’s real “star” is the cascade of events that happen to his character, including in the transportive dream sequences. I wish Under the Silver Lake made more sense, or had a point, but I’m also fine with this carousel of crazy lacking both of those things. Bless this mess.