It is often the case that those who are most convinced they can see clearly enough to decipher the hidden signs and cabals covertly governing the world are actually the most befogged by booze and controlled substances. That is not a matter of irony—it rather follows. Sam is a perfect example. The nothing slacker will interpret no end of clues hiding in plain sight all around us. Yet, somehow, they might just lead him to some answers regarding his missing neighbor in screenwriter-director David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, (his follow-up to It Follows) which opens today in New York.
Sam has developed a huge crush on Sarah, who probably is not equally enamored with him, but she is friendly enough to get stoned together, which is encouraging. However, when he comes looking for her the next day, he finds Sarah and her roommates have vanished. The apartment complex manager is not inclined to be helpful, because Sam is seriously in arears on rent. Instead, Sam will get some crucial intel from a comic artist who draws Under the Silver Lake, a zine about Los Angeles’ secret history and urban legends, like a serial dog killer and the Owl’s Kiss, a black widow-like bird creature.
Sam’s investigation will take him to the exclusive corners of the town, where the super-rich and highly strange rub shoulders. He learns to interpret hobo symbols from the 1930s and the subliminal lyrics in a hipster band’s specialty EP pressing. Conveniently, many of the clues are buried in the ironic pop culture he is so familiar with. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the conspiracy’s details is oddly fascinating. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s ultimate rabbit hole is just too deep and outrageous. Most viewers will be incredulous to find out what it is really all about. Still, the getting there is surprisingly entertaining.
Indeed, Lake is a pleasant surprise, considering how divisively mixed critical opinion has been up to now. It does not hurt that Mitchell loads the film up with film noir conventions and homages. A detour to Griffith Park? But, of course. Frankly, some of the most important work comes from the art and design teams, who created the art of the Silver Lake zine, the vintage magazines, the hobo handbook, and the eccentric knick-knacks generously distributed throughout the featured apartments.
Andrew Garfield manages to be just the right degree of twitchy as Sam. We can easily envision him as one of the nutty commentators on Room 237, but he is hardly a sad, non-functional figure, like Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory. Riley Keough also so convincingly balances charm, seductiveness, and mysteriousness, we can easily buy into Sam’s determination to find her. Plus, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Grace Van Patten, Riki Lindhome, and Wendy Vanden Heuvel all make strong impressions as various women co-existing in Sam’s warped world.
Mitchell just takes the film a little too far, but the real news is just how much of Silver Lake genuinely works. It is hard to believe nobody has taken a crack at adapting Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, but Mitchell’s film gives us a taste of what it might be like. Recommended for fans of LA noirs and conspiracy fiction, Under the Silver Lake opens today (4/19) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.