It takes about an hour before someone in “Under the Silver Lake” puts the movie’s labyrinthine trajectory in perspective. “There’s an entire generation of men obsessed with video games and secret codes,” he says. Indeed: In David Robert Mitchell’s baffling and often brilliant L.A. neo-noir, Sam (Andrew Garfield) stumbles through a convoluted mystery where the puzzle pieces lead back to his own obsessions.
Like Mitchell’s two other features, “Under the Silver Lake” transforms a familiar genre into a unique context, in this case channeling the shaggy-dog detective story into the ambivalence of a millennial who keeps losing the narrative thread of his own life. The movie personifies the male gaze, but it’s also conspicuously about that, deconstructing privilege more than lingering in its confines.
After all, this is the story of a philandering white guy whose obsession with his sultry neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) sends him on a bizarre subterranean adventure because he probably has nothing better to do. Sam’s epiphanies about his privileged circumstances matter more than any of the breadcrumbs he chases through a loopy plot that takes its time to wander across two hours and 20 minutes. It’s a bizarre and outrageous drama grounded in the consistency of Garfield’s astonishment at every turn.
Writer-director Mitchell’s third feature is a tricky gamble. Even as it takes the form of blunt homage to the loopy Los Angeles noirs ranging from “The Long Goodbye” to “Mulholland Drive,” it remains within the confines of Mitchell’s own distinctive style, which echoes familiar genres like enchanting, dreamy reflections of the real thing. From the John Hughes pastiche of “The Myth of the American Sleepover” to the allegorical sexual horrors of “It Follows,” Mitchell fuses elegant pastiche with alluring dramas about young people coming to grips with their own solipsism.
“Under the Silver Lake,” an homage to Hollywood history and classic films, features the kind of overreaching typical of young filmmakers with confidence to spare. However, its dogged commitment to chart a sprawling trajectory doesn’t always hold together, and often leads to frustrating dead ends. Mitchell salutes his inspirations with such self-conscious commitment they’re practically written on the screen, starting with an opening bit right out of “Rear Window”: Sam gazes out his balcony at the girl next door and another exuberant neighbor, drawn into mini-dramas as if he owns them.
It’s the male gaze incarnate, but even as Sam later finds himself standing by Hitchcock’s gravesite, “Under the Silver Lake” salutes its precedents while funneling them into a more singular work. It’s as if Sam got lost in the ephemera of movies, gaming, and other analog media until they dictated his entire reality. This becomes the most obvious factor in sorting through the movie’s purpose, and promises a payoff beyond the stoner-ific haze of each ludicrous twist.
But there are plenty of those. As Mitchell oscillates from blinding sunny days to murky nights around town, “Under the Silver Lake” wanders from the familiar signposts of central Los Angeles to stranger, lyrical riffs on the real thing: homeless tunnels with their own dust-caked king, clues buried in the confines of a Nintendo Power magazine, and a bust of James Dean in Griffith Park. Sam launches his scavenger hunt after Sarah goes missing, and he determines a tenuous connection to the discovery of charred remains belonging to enigmatic local billionaire Jefferson Severence, as well as menacing tales about a local dog killer.
The sense of peril sits at odds with the mundanity of Sam’s existence: Nothing is safe. Conspiracies lurk behind every Post-it note and discarded pizza box. Also, Sam has four days to pay his rent, and it’s not looking good.
Lost in an adventure rather than clarifying his priorities, he’s often faced with reality checks. “It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter,” someone tells him, but Sam’s priorities have their own logic. He’s kind of lame that way, though women find him appealing enough for the same reason. It’s here that “Under the Silver Lake” often stumbles, reducing the women in its sprawling ensemble to manic, sensual beings who find Sam enchanting for unknown reasons. There’s the wide-eyed fuck buddy (Riki Lindhome); a seductive actress-turned-prostitute (Callie Hernandez); a glittery hippie (Grace Van Patten); and the topless parrot lady next door. They all exist to animate various aspects of Sam’s personality, while possessing little of their own.
While the movie falls short of ironing out its representational hiccups, it does turn Sam’s own masculinity into a plot device, as if his tenuous relationship to women helps him obscure his own shortcomings. However, David’s problem with women is just one factor in a tapestry of half-formed conceits that dangle, unresolved, in Sam’s messy narrative. The movie does maintain an inspired cartoonish exuberance; a local comic-book artist (played with expert deadpan by Patrick Fischer) wrote a black-and-white zine that provides “Under the Silver Lake” with its title, and the the comic comes to life in an animated sequence reminiscent of Charles Burns’ dark, surrealist, coming-of-age dramas.
The comics explore the origins of the titular neighborhood, its relationship to the silent-film era, and the early stirrings of the dog murders with a blend of real-life history and folklore. Sam instantly believes they explain everything, because why not? “Under the Silver Lake” is ludicrous in its dense assemblage of information, but that sense of an overwhelming existence and elusive answers holds Sam’s plight together.
It takes some time for Mitchell’s reverence for zany L.A. fever dreams to find its own voice, but the movie gains confidence as it moves along, finally landing at a masterful pitch of outrageous inspiration deep into the third act with one of the greatest WTF dream sequences in recent memory. A wizened pianist (Jeremy Bonn) takes credit for every popular song in history, attributing the entirety of counterculture to the machinations of one evil white man. He diagnoses Sam in a single indictment: “Pop culture floats away like tissue paper.”
Aided by cinematographer Mike Gioloukas’ sunny visuals and a searching Disasterpiece score, the movie becomes a bittersweet ode to wanting answers from an indifferent world overwhelmed by superficial distractions. The homage can be irritating and some of the transitions work better than others across an unwieldy running time — but even the flaws speak to the movie’s beguiling raison d’être. It’s fascinating to watch Mitchell grasp for a bigger picture with the wild ambition of his scruffy protagonist.
“Under the Silver Lake” premiered in Official Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. A24 releases it in the U.S. on June 22.