Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell becomes the latest director to take on Hollywood--in the metaphorical sense, that is--in the wild, wooly, riveting 'Under the Silver Lake.'
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If there’s one thing Hollywood has always liked to talk about, it's itself. Fredric March and James Mason have fallen victim to the magpie memories of La La Land in twin incarnations of A Star Is Born. In, well, La La Land, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling waltzed through a Technicolor fantasyland, realizing their career dreams but failing to hold onto one another. Gloria Swanson is always ready for her close-up. The glamour, the struggle, the fleeting nature of fame in sunny Los Angeles: It’s not exactly untrammeled territory.
 
But David Robert Mitchell does it like never before in Under the Silver Lake, the writer/director’s follow-up to the critically heralded It Follows. Mitchell’s LA allegory is more abstract than its predecessors; there are no actors trying to make it big or once-shining stars on the downslide to obscurity. Instead, we get Sam (Andrew Garfield), who has no job, no money, and no particular drive to fix either problem. He’s paranoid and selfish, entitled and callous. He’s blinded by nostalgia; his apartment is papered with movie posters from the '30s, which is nothing too unusual, but he still keeps the very first Playboy he ever masturbated to by his bedside, which is. And, the coup de awful person gras: His toxic, entitled attitudes towards women. He spies on his female neighbors and becomes obsessed with finding one of them, Sarah (Riley Keogh, opaque and gorgeous, a modern-day, untouchable Hitchcock blonde), after she moves out despite the fact that he’s had only a few hours of contact with her.
 
Sam is Hollywood. Sam is also what Hollywood has done to us.
 
Garfield is perfect casting for Mitchell’s antihero, because—like Hollywood itself—he has a natural charisma that, at first glance, does a decent job of papering over his more despicable aspects. There’s a hangdog charm to Sam that never quite goes away, even as he’s—for example—beating up children for vandalizing his car or opining that “I know it’s not OK for me to say this, but I fucking hate the homeless.”
 
Sam’s quest to find Sarah takes us and him through an at-time incomprehensible maze of conspiracies, hobo code, undeground tunnels and long-buried clues found in cereal boxes. Side characters, like a cartoonist obsessed with the legend of a killer owl-woman and the king of Los Angeles' hobos, drift in and out of the story. They’re dispensable, Mitchell tells us—of importance only because of Sam, when Sam needs them. In a world where where’s only so much success to go around, you use people and throw them away. 
 
No one is used so much—in the history of Hollywood and in Under the Silver Lake—than women. Men’s obsession with them and violence towards them is part of what the film industry is based on; we see it here in Sam’s fixation on Sarah and any number of secondary female characters who show up to look pretty, support a man and exit stage left. 
 
It’s no surprise that the actress referenced most often in Under the Silver Lake is Janet Gaynor, the winner of the very first Best Actress Oscar. She’s also the “star” in A Star is Born—Vicki Lester, nee Esther Blodgett, a core element of Hollywood’s foundational myth about itself. Under the Silver Lake presents the darker, corrupting influences of Hollywood—the consumerism, the superficiality, the exploitation of women—without endorsing them or indulging in too much “everything is meaningless, woe is me” nihilism. What makes it work is that it's self-aware.
 
Mitchell put a lot into Under the Silver Lake—a mystery, a meta-commentary of Hollywood history, commentary on how audiences consume Hollywood product… a subplot with a guy who murders dogs? That last one doesn’t quite make sense. There’s a lot going on here, maybe too much, but Under the Silver Lake has the makings of a cult classic all the same.