“It’s silly wasting time on something that doesn’t matter,” says a dreamy young woman with a fondness for balloons (Grace Van Patten) to an embittered and unemployed young man turned would-be detective named Sam (Andrew Garfield) in writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s surreal new film, Under the Silver Lake. It’s one of those almost throwaway lines of dialogue that, upon closer inspection, perfectly encapsulates the quality and the temper of the film as it’s unfolding, and in the case of this Los Angeles-set odyssey of ennui, conspiracy, glamor, and libido, it’s a clever self-critique.
Reteaming with the expert lensing of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and stirring composer Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace), the same schooled talents that brought so much finesse to Mitchell’s last film, 2014’s nostalgia-addled nightmare It Follows. And where that film took many of its cues from the horror films of the 70s and 80s, it could be argued that Under the Silver Lake also draws from those decades, though from the neo noir genre –– Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) offer as decent a blast off point as any.
But Under the Silver Lake is more than just a compendium of cinematic references, it’s also a spit-in-the-eye social commentary to disaffected youth, hipster aestheticism, pop culture, and hero worship.
Sam isn’t a very likeable layabout, he’s months behind in his rent at a rather low-key lovely apartment complex in the trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake. When he’s not spying on his neighbors with high-powered binoculars, masturbating to vintage Playboys, distractedly screwing his kinda sorta actress girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), or watching old black-and-white movies, Sam is pining over his pretty and provocative neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough, continuing her string of strong performances in movies like Mad Max: Fury Road , American Honey , and Logan Lucky , amongst others).
When Sarah and her flatmates pack up and move in the middle of the night, Sam smells a rat (or perhaps more fittingly, a skunk), and starts some amateur sleuthing to find out how and why she went all Gone Girl on his privileged white ass.
Sam lacks the charms of Elliot Gould’s variant on Philip Marlowe, or the slacker zen of Jeff Bridges’ the Dude, but Garfield does manage to make his hedonistic anti-hero affable, at least some of the time. And when Sam frequently gets in over his head, running afoul the Homeless King (David Yow), a bloodthirsty Owl Woman (Karen Nitsche), or a Swan-like music impresario (Jeremy Bobb), it’s cruelly gratifying to see him get knocked around. Just as it’s cruelly gratifying to see Sam pound the crap out of some pre-teen pisstakers.
Under the Silver Lake is dividing audiences down the middle, and that’s to be expected given that it offers an overlong study of self-important, wealthy, and white spoiled brats. These L.A. rats, each in a state of arrested adolescence, fixate on shiny surfaces and shallow beauty and the result is one of the most audacious, campy, and crass offerings of the year. Recommended.
Taste of Cinema rating 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.