It Follows director David Robert Mitchell returns to cinemas – and MUBI in the UK – this week with his third feature Under the Silver Lake, starring Andrew Garfield and Riley Keough. Firmly dividing critics at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, there’s sadly little to recommend about this LA-set mind-fuck.
Sam (Garfield) likes staring at girls. Waiting in the coffee shop, with binoculars from his apartment balcony and with a friend using a drone to peer through the windows of a house where a suspected ‘lingerie model’ lives. He likes looking at their asses when walking behind them as well. This has nothing much to do with the film, but the mind wanders when bored. But don’t worry: it isn’t creepy because the girls don’t seem to mind. One of them – a new neighbour Sarah (Keough) – asks him if he was masturbating when he was gawping at her in her swimsuit. They’re getting on like a house on fire when her friends arrive back in her apartment with a pirate and so they decide to meet up the next afternoon.
But then plot happens. She goes missing and Sam begins to believe that it is also mixed up with the titular fanzine, which recounts a complicated conspiracy theory involving the homeless, secret languages, codes hidden in songs, a dog-killer and an owl-woman who sneaks into bedrooms and knifes people at night. None of this makes sense. Even when it is all explained towards the end. But who cares, right? The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Big Sleep: all those Los Angeleno mysteries meander through the city of angels, taking in showbiz parties, vacuous dialogue and famous landmarks with hyper-complex conspiracies that they don’t quite unravel. And if a head gets bashed in by a guitar or a squirrel falls dead out of the tree, then so far so David Lynch.
Mitchell’s third film feels like a script that was locked in a drawer after numerous rejections but now can be brought out and pushed through with clout earned from the success of It Follows. It’s manifold flaws are given ironic gloss, so the leering mentioned in the first paragraph is swiftly followed by a comment about the ‘male gaze’ and Sam is given a dozen or so little speeches about things he hates such as people asking what he does for work – he does nothing – and how he hates the homeless because they’re ‘bullies’.
Sam gets stoned like the Dude and is sprayed by a skunk, which leads to a ‘hilarious’ joke with people repeatedly asking “What’s that smell?” and it’s him because he got sprayed by a skunk. The laziness of the satire means it hardly qualifies as such. Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson turns up at a party wearing a woman’s blouse. “Are you wearing a woman’s blouse?” Sam asks. At one point we’re told of a 12-year-old who has written and produced a sitcom. It’s probably a damned sight better than this.
Okay. Something positive. Garfield – one of history’s less essential actors – is actually very good and the soundtrack – a gorgeous old-fashioned score by Disasterpeace – is undeservedly excellent. There is a chance that Under the Silver Lake will gain a cult following in the way Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales did following a disastrous Cannes premiere. There’s a chance that, like all conspiracies, the film requires multiple viewings to really unpeel the layers. There’s a chance this is actually a brilliant film but there’s a clue hidden in the film like an Easter egg of admission – a key to all mysteries. It is a shot of a toilet full of shit.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty