They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and this could very well be the slogan for David Robert Mitchell’s highly anticipated Under the Silver Lake. Breathing new life into a dated genre is no easy feat but with its unusual structure, bold storytelling and quirky set of characters, Mitchell’s follow-up to the 2014 hit It Follows attempts to do just that.
However, just because a film is able to identify the tropes of a particular genre (and poke a little fun at them) does not mean it succeeds at imbuing it with a modern perspective.
Under the Silver Lake certainly is a refreshing take on film noir, especially in the way that it tackles the redundant and difficult-to-rejuvenate tropes that made the genre so popular in the 1940s and 50s. The blatant references to classics such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye come as welcomed sights for any lover of the genre, however the overstuffed plot and too many left turns make it difficult for even the savviest viewer to keep track.
The film follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), an unreliable, disheveled and surly anti-hero (our first nod to the noir genre). We don’t know much about Sam other than he doesn’t have a job, seemingly lies to his mother on a regular basis and enjoys watching his topless neighbour feed her pet birds through a pair of binoculars from his balcony. But the unmotivated Sam finds a purpose in his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), a bombshell blonde who makes a splash at their apartment complex pool. Sam and Sarah, along with her adorable dog, spend an evening together getting drunk and high and watching old movies. They are about to share a kiss when Sarah’s roommates stroll into their apartment, and she hurriedly sends Sam out the door.
Following a promise that they would hang out again, Sam heads back to Sarah’s the next day only to find her apartment completely empty, furniture and all. What’s left is a small box of Sarah’s belongings and an odd symbol painted on the wall that sends Sam on a series of gooses-chases to try to figure out what happened to her.
A childhood spent obsessively uncoding hidden messages and a few chance encounters provide to be rather handy in Sam’s search, and as he slowly pieces together the (many, many) puzzle pieces of Sarah’s disappearance, you get the sense that he hasn’t seen this much excitement in a long time. Perhaps Sam is using this quest as a distraction from his financial woes, or a means of coping with a recent breakup, but Silver Lake doesn’t venture that deep into Sam’s raison d’etre, at least not until the very end, making it difficult to understand why a man would go through so much trouble for a woman he just met.
Instead, the film takes you on a series of twists and turns, some of which appear to be important but aren’t fully explained, while others are complete duds and feel like a waste of time. The final sequence all but confirms our main character’s existential crises but with so much of the plot left up in the air, the ending feels like a bit of a head-scratcher.
What’s more frustrating than the film’s overwrought plot, however, is its treatment of women. The women in the film—who somehow all end up developing a sexual interest in Sam despite his aforementioned unkempt appearance and frantic behaviour—are constantly objectified and underused. In a typical noir, the women exist as pretty propellers of the anti-hero’s journey, and this is exactly what happens in Silver Lake. Every woman Sam interacts with either wants to sleep with him or can provide him with his next clue (or both) and it is unclear whether this is a deliberate move on Mitchell’s part as to criticize this elemental feature of the genre or if he just didn’t know how to utilise the women in his film. One noir trope which would have been appreciated is the femme fatale character, or literally any woman who didn’t proposition Sam within minutes of meeting him (Zosia Mamet’s character might fit this bill but, much like the rest of the female characters, her character isn’t developed enough for anyone to care). Sadly, Silver Lake fails its women despite relying on them to drive its plot.
What the film does beautifully is take the viewer on a ride. The vast Hollywood Hills are the perfect backdrop for this extensive scavenger hunt and the attention to detail in every single shot should not be overlooked. The peak into the hallucinatory underground of the Los Angeles party scene coupled with the peculiar motifs, many of which revolve around dogs, feel like a call to some Lynchian universe. Garfield is the obvious standout as the paranoid conspiracy-theorist Sam, and he will likely receive similar praise for a career-turning role as his contemporary Robert Pattinson did for his work in Good Time.
There is also room to applaud Mitchell here, as subverting a genre which has long been defined by its fixed characteristics can’t be easy. Silver Lake seems like the type of film you can watch over and over again and never fully grasp, which could be a draw for some but not for others. Perhaps a second and third viewing would provide more insight. Perhaps it would leave me frustrated all over again. One things is for sure, Under the Silver Lake is one such film that will have people thinking and talking long after they’ve seen it.
By Alexandra Colatosti
Alexandra Colatosti is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She will be graduating with a degree in Journalism and Film Studies at Concordia University in late 2018. She loves all kinds of film, especially horror and sci-fi. She also enjoys the classics but finds it hard to watch them on any old screen. Her favourite directors are Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes and Paul Thomas Anderson. Some of her most beloved films include A Woman Under the Influence, Metropolitan, La Dolce Vita and Dazed and Confused. You can find her ranting and raving about movies, among other things, onTwitter or check out some of her other work here.