Review: Under The Silver Lake is a major genre film that deserves to be seen in a theatre

Although it’s been slipped into one Toronto theatre this week as an afterthought, David Robert Mitchell’s latest is an iconoclastic, haunting film


UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (David Robert Mitchell). 139 minutes. Opens Friday (April 26). See listing. Rating: NNNN


As the entire world lines up to see the new Avengers movie this weekend in IMAX and AVX and 4DX and every other shiny megaplex add-on format available, Mongrel Media is slipping Under The Silver Lake onto a single dinky screen at the Carlton. 

I have no illusions that a film as unapologetically weird as David Robert Mitchell’s could ever compete for people’s attention with any Marvel movie, let alone one as gargantuan as Endgame. (Although it does star Andrew Garfield, a former Spider-Man.) And I also understand that Mongrel’s release strategy was hampered by U.S. distributor A24’s choice to schedule its VOD release immediately after the theatrical dates, which precluded a proper theatrical run.

But even so. It’s a shame to see any movie treated like an embarrassment, and in the case of Under The Silver Lake it’s just unfair. Mitchell’s successor to his 2015 cult hit It Follows is exactly the movie he wanted to make. Yes, it’s narratively messy and aesthetically grimy. It’s also artistically consistent and undeniably fascinating. It is its own weird thing from beginning to end, and I kinda dug it.

It’s true that It Follows set expectations awfully high. That film had a timeless, evocative quality, a relentless trajectory and a brilliant horror hook that snapped together into one fantastic package. Under The Silver Lake has much more in common with Mitchell’s first feature, The Myth Of The American Sleepover, playing with ephemeral concepts like attraction, comfort and status. It’s harder to sell, but not impossible.

Garfield plays Sam, a withdrawn young man who lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex where he spends a lot of time not doing much of anything. One afternoon, he meets a neighbour named Sarah (Riley Keough) and spends a few hours hanging out with her in her apartment. She seems sweet, if a little sad. He likes her. And the next day, she’s gone.

Sam decides to find out what happened, and while he has no investigative skills he’s very good at divining clues. Or at least he thinks he is, in the way that someone who’s watched 10 minutes of a YouTube video can believe he’s unlocked the keys to the universe. And with the mild encouragement of a couple of weird friends, he sets off on a journey to find Sarah, even though most people don’t seem to believe she’s actually missing. Maybe she just doesn’t want to be found.

Also, someone is killing the neighbourhood’s dogs.

Sam’s odyssey will take him through the socioeconomic strata of Los Angeles. He will meet hobo kings and music demigods, zine-writing recluses and heartbroken heirs to fortune. And though he might not understand what he sees – either because he’s on heavy medication, or because he’s stopped taking it – Mitchell makes sure we see the tragic arcs forming all around him.

Under The Silver Lake is a mystery in the neo-noir tradition: it’s alluring and paranoid, sifting through America’s obsession with wealth and indulgence, built around a complex, decidedly unsympathetic performance from Garfield as its unstable hero. 

Is it for everyone? Hell, no. But Mitchell has made an iconoclastic, frustrating film that won’t leave your head once you’ve seen it I caught it last fall, and it’s haunted me ever since. 

It’s a major genre piece in the tradition of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Penn’s Night Moves, Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Anderson’s Inherent Vice – and more importantly, it’s one that deserves a proper theatrical experience. You need to be entombed with it.

@normwilner

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