David Robert Mitchell is fast becoming a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival. His first two films, teen drama The Myth of the American Sleepover and horror thriller It Follows, both played in the Critics’ Week section. For his latest film, Under the Silver Lake, he has received the biggest upgrade possible, playing in the main competition (and as just one of two American entries, the other being Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman). While his previous films have been received very well, especially It Follows as one of the breakout successes of the festival four years ago, Under the Silver Lake might be a tougher sell. Mitchell’s other films can be easily categorized, but it is harder to pin down just exactly what this film is and what it has to say in its long 140-minute runtime.
Sam (Andrew Garfield with a bad haircut) is one of those typical LA movie characters, living in an apartment complex and seemingly without a job (even the classic landlord demanding overdue rent is thrown in). His life is rather aimless until he spots his new neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough). Initial contact is embarrassing as she notices him spying on her, but when he later treats her dog to a biscuit she invites him in for a drink. Just as things seem to develop into a little more than a drink, Sarah’s roommates drop in, and Sam is ushered out. When he returns to Sarah’s apartment the next day, it is vacated. That is the starting point for a frantic search for the girl all over LA, in which Sam meets many strange and mysterious characters. What’s the role of the roommates, and who is that pirate guy that is with them? How does the daughter of a missing billionaire tie into this? And how can a niche comic writer help him? Sam, a man with a proclivity for seeing codes and hidden messages in everything, scrambles through the Hollywood Hills in search of his ever-elusive dream girl, but is mostly running in circles because the girl doesn’t seem to want to be found.
If this sounds rather aimless, your assessment is right. David Robert Mitchell is mainly playing with genre tropes here, and there is a point to it, but it makes for a demanding watch. Under the Silver Lake can be compared to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, both featuring characters low on life’s totem pole in search of a missing woman. Both shaggy dog detectives although Under the Silver Lake‘s Sam isn’t an actual PI, unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello. It’s a neo-noir, a Philip Marlowe for hipsters if you will. Apartments full of old movie posters, characters eating obscure cereal (and finding clues in it), indie rock bands playing a pivotal role. The film abounds with movie references, from De Palma to Marilyn Monroe, but it owes most to David Lynch. Mitchell tries to evoke the ‘off-ness’ of Lynch’s settings and characters, but is it an homage or is it a vision? Like Sarah, Mitchell’s intentions seem ever illusive. One of Under the Silver Lake‘s themes is the artificiality of life that is created in the very hills Sam is roaming, but Mitchell’s contribution to that at times does not seem to want to go further than “and look how I’m contributing to that.” The film tries to say something about pop culture, but it does so by throwing more pop culture on the screen.
At some point, as a viewer you have to wonder where all of this is going, but Mitchell is determined in keeping everyone inside the rabbit hole, keeping answers always out of reach like a dangling carrot. Combined with the long runtime, that makes at times for a frustrating watch, certainly down the stretch. These are the impulses of a young director who doesn’t want to conform to pop culture norms, who clearly has a vision of some sort, but who is also at times still groping in the darkness of LA nights, much like his character Sam. Mitchell’s talent is undeniable, and Under the Silver Lake over time will be re-evaluated many times, but at this point it looks like the young director bit off more than he could chew. He has all the potential of becoming a David Lynch of his generation, but his vision hasn’t quite formed yet, and he could easily turn out to be no more than a copy of the original. But David Robert Mitchell is certainly one to watch.