Sam (Andrew Garfield) has managed to avoid work for some time now, and it is threatening to see him evicted from his Los Angeles apartment since he is running out of funds. But he feels a peculiar lack of urgency to sorting his life out, preferring to, for example, observe the locals around the swimming pool, or the lady who lives opposite with the parrot who speaks, but unintelligibly; the fact she's often topless doesn't hurt. However, when one young woman (Riley Keough) appears poolside with her pet dog, Sam is immediately captivated and makes up his mind to get to know her, not realising the dangerous rabbit hole of a Wonderland he is about to plunge into...
David Robert Mitchell was the man who gifted the world It Follows, one of a seeming new wave of intelligent, original horror that emerged from the ashes of the torture porn mini-boom and as a sideline to the return of ghosts and possessions to the scene in a big way. Fans of that effort were highly keen to see what he had next up his sleeve, but when it was not a horror film, and indeed was barely classifiable as anything other than a shaggy dog story cum detective yarn, the reaction was... shall we say mixed? That is if many got to see it in the first place, as instead of the blessed treatment his previous cult hit enjoyed, this was given perfunctory cinema dates, and a simultaneous streaming release, not even all that easy to find on disc.
Was this warranted? Had Mitchell gone all Richard Kelly on us and followed up his Donnie Darko with a Southland Tales, as many were wont to point out? Not quite, as while there was undoubtedly self-indulgence here that turned off the majority of audiences, such as they were, this was less a "check out my references"-fest than a love letter to movies, as if creating a patchwork of obvious and far less obvious connections across a spectrum of cinema. If all you could see were the nods to the classic and cult and very little else, this would annoy you, but if you appreciated this on the level its main character spent his time joining pop culture dots did, then you would be in for a fine old time, especially as Mitchell had lost none of his technique with the camera.
If anything, Under the Silver Lake resembled one of those video essays, or rather a particular essay film, Thom Anderson's ruminative epic on California, Los Angeles Plays Itself, so you had a touch of The Long Goodbye and Mulholland Drive here, maybe a dash of Rebel Without a Cause and The Big Lebowski there, along with other touchstones that did not even feature that city. Yet the sense of a trip around its environs, a literal trip as well as a head trip, was never far away as Sam tried to track down the girl who had wanted to see him the next day, only the next day she and her roommates were gone, apparently for good. When he sees the news that she is linked to a recently deceased multimillionaire and local celebrity, he is filled with the need to avenge her death by justifying her existence, making her matter by fathoming the conspiracy she was part of.
Oddly - and there was a lot odd about this - Mitchell didn't seem to like his protagonist all that much, often going out of the way to present him unsympathetically (Sam has a violent streak of which we might just see the tip of the iceberg) and further than that, humiliating him regularly: we often see him naked and at a disadvantage, his car is vandalised, he is sprayed by a skunk early on that makes him stink for the rest of the story, and so on. The more he delves into that conspiracy, the less clear he can make it, contacting men who believe they can work it out but are as hopeless as he is, and women who are so spaced out or marching to the beat of their own drum that it is pointless trying to keep up with them so while they may often be desirable, they kept Sam at arm's length (and in one scene at kick in the bollocks' length) almost unintentionally.
It is pointed out in passing that culture has become influenced for the worse by computer games, eliminating mystery rendering it everyday and effectively monetising it, yet this a joke too, for Sam is like a game character, picking up his score in a scenario that means positively fuck all to anyone who never played. Its off-kilter atmosphere was never going to be for everyone, but if you tuned in like with a numbers station, it became hypnotic in its accumulation of detail, like a fanzine from the seventies that published all submissions, no matter how off the wall or just plain psychotic the authors were. When Sam thinks he has this all worked out in his mind, it heads off on a new tangent, be that a dream sequence where Keogh finally places Marilyn Monroe's pool scene for the aborted Something's Gotta Give in a proper context, or a meeting with someone who should have all the answers, but spins a riddle about having invented every catchy song - and song of rebellion - ever recorded. Again, Mitchell draws delight from disappointing his lead, eventually leaving him at rest wondering "Is that all there is?" as the world closes in, its strangeness commodified to oblivion. (Wonderful) music by Disasterpeace.