Remember what I said last month in my review of The Dead Don’t Die about expectations? Cube that, and you’ll be roughly in the ballpark of Under the Silver Lake. Expectations were high for David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his 2011 New Horror Classic It Follows (his It Follow-Up?); how would this gifted stylist spend the extra clout and budget afforded by his left-field critical and commercial success? Like The Dead Don’t Die, Under the Silver Lake premiered at Cannes, and the response was… puzzled. Mitchell’s eye for candy-colored visuals was apparent, but far from the spare minimalism of It Follows, Mitchell had crafted a sprawling, shaggy-dog stoner-noir comedy, filled with excesses and flights of fancy. Mitchell’s distributor, the normally canny A24, was clearly rattled; weeks out from its planned summer 2018 release, Silver Lake was abruptly pulled and reslated for December. As that date neared, it was pulled again, and quietly dumped to VOD this past April. By all appearances, Under the Silver Lake was an embarrassment, set adrift on an ice floe to be put out of its misery.
But there’s that thing about expectations again. As critics and audiences began seeking out Under the Silver Lake (as they would have to do, given its lack of fanfare), its reputation was upgraded from “unmitigated disaster” to “interesting failure,” and eventually to “maybe actually kind of great?” Its token initial theatrical run (which consisted of two theaters, one in New York and one in LA) took in some of the best small release per-theater numbers its opening weekend. In the months since, Under the Silver Lake has used its building word-of-mouth to cautiously creep into the independent moviehouses from which it was previously denied.
Which brings us to this weekend, in which Under the Silver Lake finally makes its Boston big-screen debut at the Brattle. So how is it– and what is it?
(exhales deeply) Okay. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, an unemployed thirtysomething slacker given to spying on his neighbors in his seedy LA apartment complex. In particular, he finds himself drawn to Sarah (Riley Keogh), a new arrival who invites Sam into her apartment. After sharing a joint and watching How to Marry a Millionaire (the first of several allusions to Marilyn Monroe), Sarah invites Sam to hang out the following afternoon. When Sam returns, however, he finds her apartment completely empty. With nothing else in particular to occupy his energies, Sam becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of where Sarah went– and who she was in the first place.
The following two hours are a nearly indescribable fantasia of every conspiracy theory you’ve ever read, filtered through the general framework of a hard-boiled detective story (or, more specifically, such postmodern sunshine noir as The Long Goodbye or Inherent Vice). Numerology plays a major role, as do backwards messages in pop music. Nearly every frame is filled with secret codes, which I have no doubt can actually be translated with one’s finger on the pause button. Patrick Fischler (whose unforgettable scene in Mulholland Drive is clearly a major influence) plays an even-more-paranoid zine publisher, whose writings are illustrated via arresting animation. There’s a recurring glam-rock band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, and separate art happenings in a graveyard, a mortuary, and a catacomb. In addition to Marilyn, references are laced throughout to countless Hollywood touchstones, notably Hitchcock, Rebel Without a Cause, and, peculiarly, ‘30s starlet Janet Gaynor. Jesus Lizard/Flipper frontman David Yow pops up intermittently as an enigmatic figure dubbed “The Homeless King.” About two thirds of the way through, centuries of pop music are revealed to be part of a grand, Illuminati-like conspiracy, and this isn’t even the climax of the movie. There’s enough casual nudity to make ‘70s Roger Corman blush. A major plot point involves Nintendo Power’s walkthrough of the original Legend of Zelda. Topher Grace is there, but his character is never actually given a name.
To be sure, there’s a lot of stuff here that doesn’t quite work. There’s also a lot of stuff that I think is absolutely brilliant. There’s even a lot of stuff that manages to be both, such as the mysterious, nude, owl-headed woman who occasionally crawls in and out of people’s cupboards and closets. If you’re doing the math, you’ll notice the takeaway: there is a lot of stuff in this movie. In some ways, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better served if it were broken up as a miniseries (an interesting counterpoint to the many TV showrunners who insist their creation is “really a long movie”). But Under the Silver Lake is a singular experience, overflowing with ideas and in love with the possibilities of moviemaking. It’s also frequently hilarious (Garfield in particular fully commits to playing possibly the least likable and most ineffectual detective in movie history), and as densely layered as a Firesign Theatre record. In other words, it’s far more worthy of recognition than its pre-release reputation would suggest.
Which brings us back to expectations. Had Under the Silver Lake been released last summer as planned, there’s a very good chance it would have been as savaged as it was at Cannes; it certainly wouldn’t have been the breakout moneymaker its predecessor was, and spent years slowly building up word-of-mouth reevaluation (think of the half decade between the excoriating initial reviews of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its eventual Criterion Collection coronation). It’s almost enough to wonder if A24 isn’t playing eleven-dimensional chess, fast-forwarding past the initial disappointment directly to the point of rediscovery. (I’m reminded of the famous quote from Coca Cola CEO Don Keough– no relation to Riley– on whether the New Coke debacle was a long con to boost the sales of the original formula: “The truth is, we’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.”) In any event, the fact that it’s finally reached a theater near you is something of a miracle, and a movie with this much packed into it deserves to be seen on the big screen. Myself, I watched it more than a month ago, and it hasn’t stopped scuttling around the back of my brain since– which I think makes it a resounding success.
Under the Silver Lake
dir. David Robert Mitchell
Screens Friday, 7/5 through Wednesday, 7/11 @ Brattle Theatre – click here for showtimes and ticket info