Who is the master of Noir? Well, that depends on who you ask. Traditionalists will go for Raymond Chandler or Alfred Hitchcock, while the more obtuse will scream out for Thomas Pynchon and David Lynch. Seemingly David Robert Mitchell can’t quite decide where his affiliations lie in this field either, given the attempts by his latest feature to mesh them together. Under the Silver Lake is a highly esoteric, mostly entertaining, at times very creepy love letter to classic detective stories. Under the Silver Lake isn’t as coherent as DRM’s last film (It Follows) but, he seemingly had a great time unwinding its LA-based shaggy dog tale.
The first mystery is presented in the opening shot as we see Sam (Andrew Garfield) against a window with “BEWARE THE DOG KILLER” graffitied across it. He’s a man out of time, not committed to his relationship, behind on rent, and with no real purpose other than counting out his thirties in LA. He’s also pretty seedy, a change of pace for Garfield which he pulls off excellently, as one early scene displays when he’s spying on his eccentric neighbours with binoculars akin to a stoned James Stewart in Rear Window. You should prepare yourself for a lot of on the nose references like this. And it’s through this act of friendly neighbourhood perversion where he meets his new neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), playing a dark wave song track through her boombox and drowning her dog in admiration. The two have a brief encounter, and soon after an obsession develops within Sam right before Sarah and her dog disappear in the dead of the night.
With no job or structure to hold him back, this leads Sam to become a full-time amateur detective as he works his way through Hollywood’s upper echelon, LA’s homeless community, and conspiracy theorists to figure out the reason behind Sarah’s disappearance. Along the way pleasantly developing numerous subplots including the dog murders, the hidden meanings of a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, and a fatal urban legend called the Owl’s Kiss. It’s quite some journey to go along, held together by a presentation of LA as an otherworldly entity where normal living is an alien concept.
This LA is a fevered storm of influences all crashing together, and it can lead to Under the Silver Lake feeling a little cluttered at points. The main story dabbles in Pynchon’s signature anti-government paranoia entombed in a Hitchcock morality tale. But the film also throws in a few moments of surreal Lynchian horror that don’t always work. Initially, they’re subtle and due to DRM’s horror credentials very discomforting, but almost without warning they switch into comical before the plotline is seemingly abandoned. There will also be complaints from viewers over the ending to this film, which goes against the genre tropes of tight explanation choosing to favour an open-ended resolution drenched in real-world nihilism. A smart move from DRM given how vehemently the film criticises Hollywood norms through jokes about disposability of stardom, treatment of women in film, and the obsessive nature of fan culture.
The film’s sense of humour may be a deterrent early on, as there seems to have been a decision to focus upon the cruder aspects of Sam’s life. These fade away once he starts obsessing over his heavily convoluted case, favouring existential and introspective punchlines. Yet even when the film begins to tread into more contemporary areas, visually cinematographer Mike Gioulakis keeps things rooted in Classic Hollywood Cinema. There are several visual references such as POV, through the windscreen shots, and clever use of lighting all used simultaneously to elicit the effect of the golden age of America cinema. All of this is complimented in the score by Disasterpiece that doesn’t just work on a nostalgic premise but consistently amazes in its technical prowess, and how well it complements the film’s contemporary style.
Under the Silver Lake is a sprawling and slightly messy film that requires a fair amount of patience from viewers. If you stick with it though you’ll find a picture made with serious affection, and not just for its own story but an era of cinema long gone. If you like any classic noir or Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice you cannot miss this weird, wonderful film.