David Robert Mitchell’s film shows the dangers of a hot director being given free rein, as Andrew Garfield’s stoner wanders around piecing together an occult conspiracy of the super-rich
When David Robert Mitchell brought his sensationally good It Follows to the critics’ week section of Cannes in 2015, the effect was immediate. Mitchell had already gained respect with his first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, and his electrifyingly scary movie made him, as they say, hotter than Georgia asphalt. But now he has been upgraded to a competition slot with latest film Under the Silver Lake: a catastrophically boring, callow and indulgent LA mystery noir.
As so often in these situations, it doesn’t feel like a progression, but a regression, a revival of an old project that he has now has the clout to get made. It looks horribly like a screenplay he might have written when he was 19 and which has been mouldering in an unopened MS Word file on his MacBook Air ever since. Grizzled Cannes veterans were having flashbacks to 2006, to when Richard Kelly – creator of the woozy cult classic Donnie Darko – had been permitted huge amounts of money and leeway for his next picture and arrived in competition with the interminable and chaotic Southland Tales.
Under the Silver Lake stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, a totally unemployed guy: not even an unemployed screenwriter, just unemployed, although his pop-culture cinephile credentials are presented with loads of archly framed classic movie posters dotted about his place, along with comic books, on whose shiny covers he at one stage gets his hand yuckily stuck. Sam hangs around smoking, taking calls from his mom, indolently watching through binoculars his older female neighbour walk around on her balcony semi-nude, jerking off, sometimes having sex with an actress friend-with-benefits who occasionally stops by in a cute audition costume. But then he sees and totally falls for a mysterious young woman in the next apartment called Sarah (Riley Keough), who is two parts Marilyn to one part Gloria Grahame. She sashays about looking great in a white two-piece bathing costume. She has a dog, which makes her interestingly vulnerable: there’s a dog killer going about the city.
But then Sarah disappears, and of course Sam conceives an obsession with her – an obsession that becomes more maniacal when he realises what appears to be her dead body has been recovered, along with that of a billionaire LA mogul. But is she actually dead? Is there something else going on? Is it all an occult conspiracy of wealthy and influential people vested with unimaginable power and cultural reach, modern-day potentates so far above ordinary folk that their world constitutes a society within a society, or mysteriously and unknowably below it: under LA’s Silver Lake neighbourhood.
From then on, Sam wanders around with a stoner’s sense of both bewilderment and aghast certainty, piecing together the clues that appear in old copies of Playboy, on cereal packets, in a macabre fanzine called Under the Silver Lake and the lyrics of a quaint goth band. And Sam gets to look at an awful lot of beautiful, unclothed women – this seems a bit of a pre-Time’s Up sort of a film, incidentally – who may be the mysteriously sensual initiates or vestal non-virgins of the conspiracy.
Under the Silver Lake always looks good, and the soundtrack is great. There is an interesting scene when, in the course of his Lynchian odyssey, Sam chances across an ageing composer who reveals he personally has composed all the pop songs that everyone has loved over the past 60 years: all those melodies that everyone fondly believes are authentic popular expressions of rebellion or love, all of them churned out cynically by him. But this scene is to end in a horribly misjudged moment of violence. There is another, earlier moment of violence actually, when Sam brutally attacks the kids who had vandalised his car. Interestingly, that didn’t seem quite as crass; it actually seemed as if it might be leading somewhere.
This is one of those movies that serves as an unnerving proof of what can happen when a film-makers are hot enough to get anything they want made – when every light is a green light. Under the Green Lake is uncompromisingly long, as if doubling down on any conceivable objections on the grounds of boredom, and reaffirming its claim to something inspired. But this film just wades into a murky lake of self-consciousness and sinks inexorably to the bottom.