Diving into this wonderfully weird tale of romance

It’s been a small, if noticeable, bit of time since David Robert Mitchell scored a critical/commercial hit with the horror game changer It Follows back in 2014. That film’s mix of allegory, suspense and total watchability felt fresh and invigorating, leaving many who saw it eagerly anticipating what the writer/director would unleash next. A long stretch of silence followed until Mitchell unveiled his newest creation; the noirish surrealist comedy/mystery Under the Silver Lake.

Blending a variety of genres in a densely intriguing plot, Under the Silver Lake played to mixed reactions of wonder and confusion at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The response to Mitchell’s intricately made film led to an almost immediate European release, but prompted its studio to trim the runtime in an effort to make Under the Silver Lake a more accessible affair. While the film wound up playing at a number of other fests, including Austin’s own Fantastic Fest (with a number of critic friends telling me that this movie was right up my alley), a stateside theatrical release kept being postponed while alleged battles over cuts continued. Under the Silver Like eventually crawled into a handful of theaters; quickly attracting op/ed pieces in the film community from the small groups of cinephiles who had been waiting over a year to see what Mitchell had come up with.

In Under the Silver Lake, Andrew Garfield plays Sam; a somewhat introverted L.A. denizen living a quiet life in a vintage apartment building. When he encounters beautiful next door neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) out swimming one night, he becomes transfixed. As Sarah invites him into her world, Sam falls head over heels in love. However, when Sarah disappears without a trace the following day, Sam embarks on a surreal journey in order to find out what happened to her, searching for clues in the slightly bizarre world around him.

Since it’ll no doubt take several more viewings in order to fully grasp the many layers of Under the Silver Lake, I thought I’d serve up a brief run down of the various elements which immediately struck me upon first viewing and have lingered ever since.

That Score

Right off the bat, the one element which sticks out more than all others is the Disasterpeace score that swiftly tosses Under the Silver Lake into a realm all its own. The movie proudly wears its love for classic noir on its sleeves through its characters, twists, setting and central figure. Yet the score, complete with horns, strings and dramatic gasps is the most stand out of all the above-mentioned features. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to comprise an assortment of emo standards played out on light guitars, all sharing sounds and themes. But the wonderfully over-the-top nature of the score perfectly calls to mind the sometimes grandiose nature of the genre itself and makes for a fascinating juxtaposition to the film’s modern edge. Perhaps no other score could encompass the best of old Hollywood noir while heightening the off-center reality of its film in a way that’s totally unexpected.

Andrew Garfield’s Performance

The only real problem with Under the Silver Lake can be found within its main protagonist. As much time as we spend with Sam, we never get to know who he really is. The many curious and intriguing elements of the movie work with such excellent rhythm that we almost never notice that there’s no real character (beyond just a handful of quirks) at the center of everything. One of the reasons we never notice this is due to Garfield’s amazing work. I can’t think of too many actors who could have synced up with the VERY specific tone and world that comprises the film. Garfield is so incredibly game, willing to look both heroic, obsessed and everything in between. His dedication to the project and natural talent as an actor is apparent in the way Garfield makes Sam’s mission worth investing in for what ends up being one of his best turns to date.

Janet Gaynor’s on TCM

If nothing else, Under the Silver Lake can make the irrefutable claim of being the movie with the strongest love for Janet Gaynor ever seen. For those who don’t know, Gaynor was one of America’s earliest and most popular movie stars who made the transition from silents to talkies, becoming the first recipient of the Best Actress Oscar and eventually starring in the original version of A Star is Born. From time to time, we see Sam receive phone calls from his mom who repeatedly suggests he watch Gaynor’s movie Seventh Heaven. The story of that movie deals with an average everyman who ends up saving the life of an angelic woman played by Gaynor. Not only does that film carry parallels to Sam’s current reality, but Gaynor represents the kind of girl Sam is chasing. With wholesome allure (particularly in Seventh Heaven), Gaynor is everything his mother would approve of and a constant, if slight, reminder of his fascination with the almost dreamlike Sarah.

Idea of a Woman

Speaking of Gaynor as an ideal woman, it’s no secret that that’s what Sam is chasing. In Sarah, he finds a goddess; an enticing and intoxicating creature full of fascination and intrigue whom Sam probably never thought he’d ever get close to. But it’s not really Sarah he’s searching for; it’s the idea of Sarah. For him, Sarah is the perfect composite of everything he wishes his dream girl to be, which is why his search is such an elusive one. Sam is literally chasing a figure of his own creation instead of an actual person. Since the movie’s release, claims have been made of Mitchell’s fascination with the female form in his movie, with suggestions of male cheuvanism and sexim being thrown at the director. Watching Under the Silver Lake however, it’s clear that Mitchell is criticizing the traditional male gaze by which countless men (including Sam) are prone to when it comes to viewing and understanding women. It’s that criticism of the past fantasy that has permeated the culture for so long which gives the film depth by pointing out that the male gaze is just that; a fantasy.

On the Street Where Sam Lives

Perhaps only 1991’s L.A. Story has provided such a unique view of the city of angels in the way Under the Silver Lake does. Mitchell’s film eschews the typical locale hot spots like the Hollywood walk of fame and Grauman’s Chinese in an effort to showcase the delightfully weirder side of one of the most recognizable cities in the world. The L.A. of Under the Silver Lake is made up of vintage buildings, offbeat clubs, sprawling landscapes and a collection of side characters which signal a nod to the kinds of oddballs you would find there in the 1960s. Adding to this almost mystical view of the city are the use of matte paintings; the sort typically found in classic films, which are employed here as yet another layer of otherworldliness. At one point in the film, Sam is given a cookie which grants him entrance to a secret concert (provided no crumbs are missing from it), which he attends in the hopes it will provide clues to Sarah’s whereabouts. When he arrives the doorman tells Sam that he must eat the cookie if he wants to enter. It’s the perfect moment which signifies the kind of sun-drenched wonderland both him and the audience finds themselves in.

You’re the Piano Man

A series of events sees Sam arrive at the mansion of a grizzled old songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) in what is really the only time Under the Silver Lake goes into full-on conspiracy theory mode. After becoming convinced that the key to Sarah’s disappearance lies in an obscure pop song with a hidden message, Sam eventually ends up at the home of its secret creator for an extended scene that wonderfully plunges into the strange and bizzare. As he sits at the piano playing the chords to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” before segueing into the theme song from Cheers, the songwriter reveals he is the mind behind countless hit songs spanning decades as Sam’s mind becomes properly blown. The songwriter’s declaration states that the influence of the countless pieces of music, film and TV all came courtesy of one man, who can claim responsibility for many of the seminal moments for generations of people. It’s a bold and oddly brilliant idea to suggest that, in essence, everything that helped shape people’s worldviews and perspectives came from the mind of a jaded musician. The scene may be simple, but proves incredibly effective as it so brilliantly posits that nothing we cherish in terms of culture is actually real.

Watching the film, I can see why the studio reacted the way they did. Much like The Big Lebowski, Under the Silver Lake is loaded with clues, hints, symbols and meanings, all of which make up an oddly mesmerizing odyssey in a sort of dreamlike nostalgia-soaked Los Angeles. It doesn’t take a test audience to see that this is a film not for mainstream moviegoers. Yet so rarely has a studio been as intimidated by one of their films than in this instance. Even the home video release of Under the Silver Lake was treated unceremoniously from all aspects; critics were sent standard DVD copies rather than the traditional Blu-Ray and the disc’s special features contain only a pair of brief making-of featurettes rather than an exploration into the film itself.

Although it’s a sentiment I’ve echoed many times in the past, the fact that a movie such as Under the Sliver Lake exists, with its uncompromised vision catering to no one particular audience, is a feat worth celebrating…even if the treatment it received is a sad sign of current industry times. Under the Silver Lake will live on. The movie possesses a subtle weirdness that creeps into a person’s bones and plants itself there, captivating it’s audience even after the film has ended. There’s no way a movie with that kind of effect can avoid being embraced by a collection of very special cinephiles who crave such experiences. Yes, the movie was given the proverbial “shaft” at every possible turn on its way to release. But I feel its true journey is just begining.

Under the Silver Lake is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Lionsgate.

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