Review: Hidden Signs Lead An Unstable Man 'Under The Silver Lake' There's a lot of flash and less substance in writer/director David Robert Mitchell's tale of a young man (Andrew Garfield) who sees hidden clues everywhere. But that flash is lovingly executed.
NPR logo In Pulpy L.A. Noir 'Under The Silver Lake,' A Man Chases Signs And Portents

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Movie Reviews

In Pulpy L.A. Noir 'Under The Silver Lake,' A Man Chases Signs And Portents

Under the Silver Lake is the newest film from David Robert Mitchell, who directed 2015's It Follows. A24 hide caption

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Under the Silver Lake is the newest film from David Robert Mitchell, who directed 2015's It Follows.

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The first time I saw David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, I was, like so many others, bewildered. It was a movie that only made sense on a macro level, zoomed out, like an impressionist painting. I went home and found a bonanza of websites trying to decipher the movie's puzzling structure and meaning. I could see how someone would spend hours, days, years trying to parse every scene for clues, an endless quest with nearly no purpose and an even smaller chance of success.

That's the sort of world in which Andrew Garfield's Sam finds himself in the film Under the Silver Lake: a world of pop culture and codes, of secrets in songs. He keeps a log tracking Vanna White's eye movements through years of Wheel of Fortune and lives in a forest of movie posters, from Rear Window to The Wolfman. He's moved to Los Angeles with seemingly no job and a few loose friends. He overlooks a pool and watches women constantly; the struggling actress he sleeps with, his older neighbor who toplessly tends to her bird, and the mysterious blonde, Sarah, played by Riley Keough, who tans next to his apartment's pool.

Lust drives Sam to Sarah, but obsession leads him to figure out what happened to her after she vanishes the next day. For Sam, Sarah's disappearance is connected to a series of unending oddities in his adopted city. A dog killer, a billionaire mogul's death, a mysterious pirate, a hidden message in a pop song. They're all connected, or so he thinks. Sam thinks he's meant for greater things, to be one of the elites who, he believes, are meant to receive these hidden messages. Sarah's disappearance presents him with his test.

Of course, it's possible the conspiracy is hogwash, but that's the point. And the film, which packs in reference after reference and keeps Sam rolling on a psychedelic odyssey through Los Angeles, refuses to provide easy answers, maybe even obfuscating his quest for the sake of our entertainment and frustration. It's a search for meaning in his life, and we're along for the ride. The movie is an exercise in curation, with cultural fascination masquerading as critique. Or maybe it's just fascination. Look for deeper meaning, you're damned to disappointment. Roll with the story, and you'll enjoy it.

At its best, the film plays loving homage to the long legacy of hazy noir set in the City of Angels; it samples the paranoia of Chinatown, the humor of The Big Lebowski, and the menace of Mulholland Drive. But it never quite matches any of these films. What Under the Silver Lake does offer is an exquisite sense of setting. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's Los Angeles is a stunning transmission from a dark subconscious. Here, L.A. is at once rooted in tangibles — code-breaking on a pizza box, a used Evian bottle full of cigarette butts, Sam's looming eviction because he hasn't paid his rent — yet suffused with the surrealism of a nightmare. Every new location is immaculately designed, from a conspiracy hunter's hidden lair of video screens to a fancy "chess party," punctuated by a perfect throwaway line.

I wish the film had dug more deeply into the troubled psyche of Andrew Garfield's Sam, mainly because Garfield is really excellent here, from the way his hair splays like a mop across his forehead, his laugh spills out like cigarette smoke. Even his run — all hunched shoulders, hands glued to his side, head tilted — is hilarious. But Sam is a troubling character, befitting those older films like Psycho and The Wolfman plastered over his walls. His quest is driven as much by masculine entitlement as curiosity; Sarah was just another potential sex partner until she vanished, out of his grip. He's strangely violent in spurts, using an egg and a guitar, of all things, and gets defensive when someone asks about his work. He's the ultimate deluded romantic, charming at first but destructive when the real world strays from his hopeful path. There's enough here to sustain the narrative, but far from enough to create a compelling character study amid the noir story.

But what's there, all two-hours-plus of it, is gripping. We're still early in David Robert Mitchell's career, but Under the Silver Lake is evidence of a budding major director. There are few greater joys than sitting back and knowing you're in the hands of a master, someone who tells a story with precision and care, and Mitchell's latest is exactly that: tactile and terrifying and fun. I can't wait to watch it again.