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Under the Silver Lake
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by Jay Seaver

"The shaggiest of shaggy dog stories."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What an absolutely bizarre tall tale of a movie, filled to overflowing with impossible connections, revelations that don't necessarily mean anything but create a feeling of resolution, and utter pop-culture absurdity. I suspect people will be digging through "Under the Silver Lake" for months when they can do so at home, connecting references and finding themes, once it is bounced from theaters because it is the sort of strange that makes one suspect the filmmakers went down the same sort of rabbit hole as the characters and still haven't come out.

The main guy plunging down the rabbit hole is Sam (Andrew Garfield), who came out to Los Angeles to make it big, somehow, but doesn't seem to have chosen a field in which to do so, and is now five days away from being evicted from his apartment. That's when he finally meets his pretty neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) and they seem to hit it off watching How to Marry a Millionaire. The next day, Sarah is gone, and Sam is certain that she didn't just move out in the dead of night like many would-be actresses behind on their rent. But while the police are searching for vanished mogul Jefferson Sevence, they're not going to spare the effort to look for Sarah on Sam's say-so, and he doesn't so much have clues as he does random bits of information that his brain sees as coded messages. Following them leads him to bizarre people and places, but does the trail lead to Sam - or is it even a trail?

That's the material for a good shaggy-dog story, with each new chapter somehow managing to be more absurd than the rest but also seldom feeling like writer/director David Robert Mitchell has taken an abrupt, unwarranted turn into impossibility. In fact, one might argue that it works because as each new revelation and seemingly random character appears, it is offering Sam some kind of explanation, and while the details may be ridiculous or seemingly impossible, it feels like progress away from not knowing, both for him and the audience. Mitchell may have his audience shaking their heads in disbelief, but he's careful never to just throw things at the audience randomly, and he is constantly tying the seemingly impossible conspiracy Sam's chasing into the ways that the audience already thinks of Los Angeles as weird anyway.

It's anchored nicely by Andrew Garfield, who makes his stumbling, uncommitted character amiable enough to seldom rub the audience too far the wrong way even if he is too swept up in trivialities and delusions to handle the basics of his life. He's a lazy young person, but one with a decent heart, even if his stories about dogs are worrisome in how they contradict each other and maybe hint at something darker underneath. Sam often seems to walk through the story in a haze, and Garfield uses that well, fashioning this thick, cuddly coat of stoner confusion but never letting it muffle how Sam can be selfish and quick to anger. This guy may be ineffective at times, but he's a step or four away from cute and childlike.

No character does much to compete with Sam for screen time, and only a few make a comparable sort of impression. Fortunately, Riley Keough's Sarah is one of them; she's teasing and down-to-earth when Sam meets her, with a distinct charm that nevertheless leaves her enough of a blank slate that Sam and the audience can project whatever they want onto her; when she pops up again, whether in recordings or otherwise, it's easy to see the insecurity and need that drives that combination. Other folks mostly get broad concepts to play and run with them in entertaining fashion (David Yow as The Homeless King and Jeremy Bobb as The Songwriter) stick out.

They run around a Los Angeles that, while it may be a specific time and place (2011), is also the L.A. of the mind - a criminal syndicate wiping out someone who seems like they may help Sam is positioned and shot so that he has seemingly wandered from a stoner comedy into a film noir without the audience noticing the change in neighborhood; strange bands and pretty girls looking to be discovered at themed parties haven't quite become selfie-taking YouTube performers yet, which leaves the cynicism at finely calibrated level. The production designers and art directors work overtime - everything is just the right level of scuzzy and elaborate, and when settings can't be found or built in completely practical manner, the fakery involved is classic movie magic, such as a glorious matte painting at the Songwriter's mansion.

The studio seems worried about this, having pushed it back a few times, and I'm not surprised. The weird parts are very weird indeed, and the combination of eccentricity and despair, often punctuated with violence, can jolt a viewer out of the story rather than into a new frame of mind. It's male-gaze-y as heck in how the camera frames its female characters and the power dynamics it displays, and much of the time it's not quite explicit enough in its comments on how Hollywood works or interested enough in how Sam himself is not great on this count to get away with it. And while 139 minutes isn't necessarily lengthy by modern standards, it's a long time to have quirk pushed at one, and it's more a question of when rather than if one feels the length, and if you can talk yourself into saying it represents how trying to make it in Hollywood is overwhelming unless you're as oblivious as Sam is.

For those who loved Mitchell's "It Follows", it's a sometimes frustrating follow-up; "Silver Lake" deliberately avoids the relentlessness that would let it easily capture an audience the way that movie did. It's too specific to tap into something universal until the end. But it's interesting and original, and I bet I'll be able to pull a lot more out of it when I really get to think about it.

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originally posted: 11/17/18 14:17:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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  19-Apr-2019 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jun-2019


  DVD: 18-Jun-2019

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