Ever since it’s explosion and subsequent saturation in 1930’s/40’s Hollywood, the noir genre has found itself bleeding into many other facets of contemporary cinema. Through classics such as Robert Altman’s seminal The Long Goodbye in the 70’s right up to a few years ago with Paul Thomas Anderson’s ludicrously brilliant Inherent Vice, and even 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, the genre has continued to evolve. That’s why Under the Silver Lake, the latest from director David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) is a very interesting and unique piece. Neither particularly straight noir or neo noir, it’s a brilliantly crafted, musing tale of its own, fuelled by great characters, a steadily developing plot and the simple catalyst of sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong.
With little going on in his life, ambitious yet aimless Sam (Andrew Garfield) comes across Sarah (Riley Keough) in the haze of the lazy California heat, with whom he spends the night and develops an attachment. Following up on the promise of regrouping the next day, Sam soon discovers that Sarah has simply vanished as if she never existed in the first place. What follows is a trippy descent into a world of conspiracy theories, L.A. counterculture, musical deities and old cereal boxes.
There are definite notes of the drug fuelled confusion from Inherent Vice, the affable leading man of The Long Goodbye and even layerings of The Big Sleep, but to draw all of these clear inspirations into this single unique story, and indeed the seemingly unrelated character in Sam, is a significant feat. While not exactly the ‘unlikely hero making good’, he’s a fascinating character and lead because he encapsulates the much sought–after feel of these films – the feeling of simply wondering through a lush peripheral life, eventually making peace with the confusion it brings. Garfield conveys this very well, as he approaches each scene with just enough caution and intrigue, and uses that to play off his co–stars effectively.
And that’s another element that adds to the uniqueness of Under the Silver Lake. While the character of Sarah is an almost ironic parody of a femme fatal, the mystery she’s caught up in couldn’t be further from the formula. The new life she represents to Sam – an escape from the laziness he’s created for himself – is a longing the audience understands Sam is desperate for. Thankfully, Keough strikes that balance rather well, playing it sensually enough to intrigue, and relatably enough to miss. It makes sense why someone as lazy as Sam is so incredibly determined to find her.
With the development of further plot details comes some really rather beautiful set design. The backdrop of L.A. geography here is so significant that it almost becomes a character itself, showing us landmarks like Griffith Park from quirky angles, and psychedelic hedonistic rooftop parties, all of which Sam quizzically drifts through. While the story really makes you wait for each important revelation, without realising, you’re dug further and further into the City of Angels itself. And there’s no disconnect, either. Each set piece services and reflects its characters perfectly, so much so that when they’re taken out of the environment you instantly understand them. The film uses this for its sparse comedy, especially once Sam unveils a secret message behind the lyrics of a fictional rock band, called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula. As if the bizarreness of the film itself didn’t already serve enough subtle gags, that just gets millennial L.A. preterition to a Tee. Brilliant.
Once the final mystery is resolved, there’s no doubt it’s going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of some. In parts, it is too far-fetched, and perhaps too weird. But if it hasn’t already become one, Under the Silver Lake will be a surefire future cult classic (dismal box office return and constant delays to its international release seem to have already made it one). It has such a great fundamental understanding of its style, characters and setting that you’ll be longing to live within it, and unravel all its surprisingly satisfying unanswered questions long after.