I’ve long admired the films of David Robert Mitchell. He’s not especially prolific, taking nearly four years out between projects, but the few he’d done between 2010 and 2015 — two to be exact — are remarkable cinematic works, if not certain masterpieces. Sure, The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows are similar movies. They are centered on the greater Detroit metropolitan area and the young people who dwell there, adults being few and far between. The cinematography is crisp but muted, favoring dusky or nocturnal scenes. The spare and elegant (or elegantly awkward) dialogue resembles a sort of young adult Pinteresque. Bodies of water somehow narratively factor in. And there is the temporally ambiguous set design that sticks its characters in a time warp where no one has cell phones or laptops but there are plenty of porn mags and old movies on antenna TVs. The films are like siblings: containing the same DNA but distinct parental characteristics. Sleepover is Mitchell’s debut but much the younger sibling: lyrical, wistful, and consciously free. It Follows is colder and rife with dread and insecurity; it’s been tested by life. The films are the same, they are different, and they are deserving of their audiences and enduring acclaim.
I knew after seeing It Follows for the first time that what Mitchell would make next was something to anticipate. I knew, moreover, that it would be forever until that happened. When I’d heard just the title of Under the Silver Lake a little over a year before its June 22, 2018 release date, that was all I needed. How foolish it all seems now.
Under the Silver Lake, starring Andrew Garfield and Riley Keough, was bought by current indie powerhouse A24, but debuted at Cannes to lackluster acclaim. The film was delayed to December 2018, evidently to be recut. Fine. Mixed but not excoriating reviews trickled in. Then it was delayed to April 2019, still I waited. And when it was released it went right to streaming services and very few theaters.
Waiting was never my strong suit. I am, indeed, a remarkably impatient person. On the fleeting times I’ll go to confession, I have had to pencil in that very impatience while getting stuck behind a much more thoroughly repentant parishioner. But I didn’t mind after all that. If anything I was more curious. What was it about this film that required so long an incubation, even a suppression? There were no consistent hints of disaster or overshooting. Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s infamously bloated follow-up to Donnie Darko, was mentioned at least once giving cause for some uneasiness, but not total despair. Maybe it just didn’t meet expectations, which is almost a worse fate than faceplanting. I had to see for myself as a matter of course. Mitchell is someone I take seriously just as I take Lynne Ramsay seriously. I will see everything they make. So I watched it on Prime as soon as it came out — all two hours and 19 minutes of it.
Under the Silver Lake is visually unmistakable from its predecessors. All of Mitchell’s preferred décor is present: porn magazines, classic films, thrift store couture, bodies of water, the permanent dusk photography. But it departs markedly from them in narrative, character, and setting. It is more a cousin than a sibling: older but not mature, cultured but not worldly, roguish but not charming; a bit creepy, in fact. These departures are not to be abjured for their own sake. They are admirable though still hazardous.
Depending on whom you ask, the plots of Mitchell’s first two films are either cohesive or simplistic, if plots are there at all. Sleepover was about kids hanging out in the suburbs; It Follows was about kids trying to escape a supernatural venereal disease in those same suburbs. A little atmosphere went a long way in both instances to great effect. By contrast, Silver Lake’s plot is, again depending on whom you ask, intricate or rather involved. Boy meets girl, of course. But then girl disappears suddenly, and boy, rather than let things go after online searching turns up zilch, sets on a citywide hunt for her whereabouts guided largely by subliminal codes, hobo symbols, urban legends, and wild coincidences he, in his heightened capacity to detect them, happens to come across. It is a “puzzle movie” that doesn’t quite know how it feels about puzzle movies. This ambivalence carries over into its characters.
Character was not really a strength in either of Mitchell’s early films, preferring instead something more akin to single personified emotions. As with those films, most of the characters in Under the Silver Lake lack surnames — or just names, period. Topher Grace plays “Bar Buddy,” Riki Lindhome plays “Actress,” Patrick Fischer plays “Comic Fan,” and Grace Van Patten plays “Balloon Girl.” Andrew Garfield’s protagonist Sam, however, is Mitchell’s most substantial character yet. He’s in his 30s, has no job, is on the verge of homelessness, infatuated by alternative rock and Vanna White, perpetually horny, and fraught by his own insignificance. He is, overall, a rather contemptible person who carries a handicap parking permit despite being fully capacitated, whose answer to dealing with the petty vandalism of a group of boys is to violently assault them, who spends his depleting funds on anything but his much overdue rent, and whose indeterminate obsession with one woman does not prevent him from casually fucking more available ones. In his travels from It Follows, Mitchell has encountered a most curious cultural phenomenon: the Xennial, that overgrown airstrip of a generation between the more livable metropolises of Mitchell’s generation X and the millennials who populate his earlier films. Again the film does not know whether to pander to or send up these young-ish people who use the internet, have heard of REM but prefer their later, less majestic work, and who are anxiously clinging to their pre-adult Epicureanism. Indeed, few of the characters seem to do anything besides pass time. Riki Lindhome has slightly more screen time than Topher Grace, but her character serves no higher purpose than to amuse Garfield and to validate his world-historic FOMO. Garfield is paranoid not so much because someone is after him, but because he has nothing else going on.
The film’s position is appreciably clearer, I think, on its location. Under the Silver Lake is identified as a “Los Angeles movie.” It bares easy resemblance to the slacker noir of The Big Lebowski, its postmodern descendant Inherent Vice, their shared ancestor The Long Goodbye, their missing link Repo Man, and it even has traces of the urban gothic of Sunset Boulevard and the surrealism of Mulholland Drive. It does the city’s look some justice, filming at iconic locations like The Last Bookstore, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and the Griffith Observatory. But there’s something diminished in its presentation; that is, there is a look of being more in it than of it.
Great LA films have never flinched from depictions of the city’s singular decrepitude; the best tend to veer from gritty to bizarre but are seldom over-earnest or romanticized, not, anyway, without immediate subversion. As with New York City, feelings of love and hate are so often indistinguishably intense and hopelessly codependent. But there are attitudes toward both that come less from hate than they do from contempt, a lesser form of derision born out of frivolity and phoniness. That contempt is threaded all through Under the Silver Lake as Sam drifts from party to vapid party held in places like Hollywood Forever, where 12-year-old auteurs who “really capture the zeitgeist” are flanked by suited bodyguards, and where invitations come in the form of cookies laced with hallucinogens.
Los Angeles is the ultimate transplant city. Some of the best works about Los Angeles were by those from without who came up on the wrong end of success from within: Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, among others), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), to name a few. These works set the template for the exceptional Angeleno madness that comes seeking utopia and which will endure as much Hell as required to attain it, even at the price of forgetting it completely. Mitchell did not see much madness in Los Angeles, evidently. He saw plenty of eccentricity, and more than a little pathos. These, too, exist in competing depictions, but never in such abundance and with such scorn. Only in Los Angeles, the film concludes, would its richest and most powerful men concoct a convoluted, expensive scheme to build and live in subterranean “tombs” with hot young women for the rest of their lives simply because they could.
There is no doubt that Mitchell thinks Los Angeles a beautiful city, his cinematic style indicates as much, but it could be improved by a better class of citizen, say, from a more upright, more hardworking, and somewhat more landlocked part of the country. In this, Under the Silver Lake echoes the simultaneous enchantment and disillusionment of every tourist. The film concludes with Sam staring with indifference from the balcony of a neighbor he has just slept with as he is finally evicted from his own apartment. I do not know what to make of this scene, but I get the sense that after this long journey, Mitchell just wants to go home.
It’d be wrong to say that this was a terrible film; I was able to rewatch it, which is more than I can say for Southland Tales. Even error can have its poetry, albeit a very morose and incidental poetry. Credit should go to A24 for knowing exactly what they had: a very accidental Hal Hartley film, and treated it more or less as such. It’s too bad. Hartley would have done wonders with the off-kilter material; but Hartley always knew just where he needed to be, and so he can be forgiven, mostly, that that place is Long Island.