A hot-as-it-gets director follows up a breakout genre hit with a sprawling LA noir in competition at Cannes... Those with steel trap memories may be having flashbacks to 2006 and the release of Richard Kelly’s grand folly Southland Tales, the disastrous second album to bonafide indie masterpiece Donnie Darko. There are eerie parallels with Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his similarly masterful indie horror It Follows. And while there’s a certain indulgent quality to Silver Lake, which smacks of a director handed carte blanche, the film's merits far outweigh its shortcomings.
Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a listless 33-year-old pop culture geek who spends his days drinking beer and ogling women from the balcony of his apartment complex. One day he spots a new neighbour, Riley Keough’s Sarah, and is smitten at first sight. Only, Sarah disappears overnight, her flat ransacked as though she never existed, save for a single polaroid. Following the breadcrumbs like a millennial Sam Spade through secret parties, dusty tunnels guarded by hobo kings and mysterious mansions in the Hollywood Hills, Sam infiltrates a subterranean world beneath the sunshine state and the Silver Lake at its heart, with codes hidden in music lyrics and folklore-ish tales of killer owl women, all in pursuit of the dream girl he hardly knows.
Reminiscent of classic LA noirs The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice and Mulholland Drive this is a story of dashed dreams, and the arrogance of a generation who believes the world revolves around them, with white male privilege in particular coming under fire. Mitchell throws so much at the screen it’s hard to know which of the labyrinthine narrative’s threads are truly important and which is just another dead end during Sam’s increasingly conspiratorial tour around the dark recesses LA’s east side.
While Garfield is reliably great as the shaggy gumshoe who always seems to have something else on his mind, it would be a stretch to say Sam is a hero, or even all that likeable. Early on he beats up some kids for keying his car, a cathartic moment taken way too far. And in one sympathy-shattering moment he expresses disgust over the plight of the homeless, the irony being that he’s dangerously close to being evicted himself after falling behind on his rent.
Everything feels loosely, or tangentially, connected in Mitchell's LA but attempting to put it all together, as Sam does obsessively, is where madness lies. Rather it’s a film to wash over you, a bewitching concoction of surreal concepts, with the kind of stunning cinematography and woozy atmosphere you'd expect from the man behind It Follows. There’s a nagging suspicion that at least some of what we’re seeing must be in Sam’s head. Certainly, the world revolves around him in a way that seems highly suspect. At one point The Legend of Zelda map found in issue one of Nintendo Power Magazine proves vital to solving a clue. Sam, naturally, has a copy lying around next to his NES. But the rug is never pulled from under Sam's feet, the film never offering clear answers or explanations for its wackier elements, which will no doubt frustrate some. But it all adds to the mind-bending tapestry Mitchell has weaved.
Constructing an entire LA mythology, the result is that it can sometimes feel like a series of captivating ideas strung together into a loosely connected episodic narrative rather than one with a fully cohesive throughline. And it’s certainly the case that Mitchell fumbles his big reveal with a disappointingly generic resolution given the many outlandish limbs the film goes out on up till that moment. But wherever you stand on Mitchell’s marmite third feature, you can’t begrudge him going for broke.
For more Cannes Film Festival coverage read our review of Matteo Garrone's canine crime thriller Dogman.