Fewer than 10 seconds elapse in Under The Silver Lake before its first coded message appears. Stylized drawings of a unicorn, a tiger, a snake, and a lion precede the opening shot proper—and seem inexplicable, even in hindsight, until you realize that the first letter of each animal’s name corresponds to the first letter of each word in the film’s title. Numerous additional clues and hints follow, visible in the background of various shots; many of these are enciphered, requiring significant effort to decode. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a blithely unemployed goofball named Sam (Andrew Garfield) runs all over Los Angeles investigating odd mysteries of his own, eventually stumbling onto a series of vaguely related conspiracies so resoundingly stupid that they make the very notion of searching for hidden meaning—whether in pop culture or the day’s headlines—seem inane. Enabling and mocking paranoid obsession at the same time might sound incoherent. In this hilariously demented spin on L.A. noir, it’s simply honest.
If nothing else, Under The Silver Lake represents a huge leap in ambition for writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose two previous features—The Myth Of The American Sleepover and It Follows—never strayed far from their respective templates (coming-of-age memoir and creepy horror, respectively). This, by contrast, is the sort of big, messy, sprawling, self-indulgent, sui generis, swing-for-the-fences passion project that can derail a filmmaker’s career when critics and audiences don’t instantly fall in love. (Richard Kelly, for example, has managed to make only one film in the 13 years since Southland Tales.) Sure enough, initial reviews for Silver Lake out of Cannes were so divisive (with our own A.A. Dowd splitting the difference) that distributor A24, which had originally planned to release the film last June, apparently got skittish, pushing the date back repeatedly. Some degree of cult following is assured, but it’ll be a shame if only the Reddit sleuths wind up embracing it, since Garfield’s Sam is basically a toxic subreddit come to life.
“What do you do?” someone finally asks him, over an hour into the movie. “Nothing,” he replies, shrugging. That’s not quite accurate—Sam can be quite industrious when it comes to nonsense—but it’s significant that he not only has no job but appears to have no intention of looking for one, even though his car gets repossessed mid-film and he’s been served an eviction notice by his landlord. Instead, his attention is laser-focused on the sudden disappearance of new neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough), with whom he’d engaged in some light flirtation. Apart from her failure to say goodbye, and one strange symbol left on the wall of her bedroom, there’s nothing particularly suspicious about Sarah’s departure. Nonetheless, Sam follows one of her friends (Zosia Mamet), sees her receive what appears to be a numeric message on a football scoreboard, and then starts seeing signs and portents everywhere. A message hidden in the lyrics of a hit song leads to a rendezvous point derived from a classic movie. Random conversational references have unexpected sequels. Eventually, Sam learns the truth—not just about what happened to Sarah, but about the entire fabric of modern society and his miserably inconsequential place within it.
That may sound grim, but Mitchell leavens the darkness with great dollops of silliness. Formally, Under The Silver Lake is unmistakably Lynchian (with a particular debt, as one might expect, to Mulholland Drive—there’s even a small but key role here for Patrick Fischler, who played the guy at Winkie’s describing his unnerving dream). That sense of foreboding, however, repeatedly gets undermined by the sheer absurdity of what Sam discovers, which includes a courier who calls himself The Homeless King and underground tunnels that lead inside a convenience store’s refrigerator. Crucially, it’s made clear that Sam was prone to seeking out improbable patterns in everyday life well before Sarah vanished, having spent months logging every eye movement that Vanna White has made on Wheel Of Fortune. He’s convinced that there must be meaning there, and while Under The Silver Lake dunks on him from start to finish, it’s also achingly sincere about the innate human desire to believe that there’s some secret code that will reveal the key to everlasting happiness, or at least enable some basic understanding of what the hell is going on. What begins as a familiar amateur-detective story metamorphoses into a futile quest for transcendence, with Mitchell as an empathetic scold, respecting the yearning even as he relentlessly ridicules the yearner.
He couldn’t have pulled it off, though, without Garfield’s performance, which is a thing of ramshackle beauty. As written, Sam is borderline reprehensible—he beats the shit out of some little kids who key his car, assaults someone else to get information, even parks in handicapped spaces (a nice, barely visible touch). It’s more than just a running gag that everyone he encounters, after a certain point, remarks that he literally stinks. Rather than lean into those odious qualities, Garfield plays him as haplessness incarnate, right down to the dorky way that he walks and runs throughout. Sam also casually objectifies every woman who wanders into his field of vision, which some viewers have mistakenly perceived as the film’s failing rather than the character’s. That’s understandable early on, when Riki Lindhome’s friend-with-benefits seems to have no function other than taking her clothes off (and asking questions that lead to important exposition); by the time Sam and a buddy (Topher Grace) use a drone to spy on a lingerie model, watching uncomfortably as she strips to her underwear and then sits there crying, it should be abundantly clear that that depiction is not endorsement in this case. Likewise, the expression on Garfield’s face in the film’s final shot could scarcely be less blatant. Some things are more effective right out in the open.