Following on from his critically admired horror hit It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s latest film centres around slacker Sam (Andrew Garfield) who meets and becomes infatuated with his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), after having spied on her from his balcony, but when Sam finds her missing the next day, he sets off on a most peculiar odyssey across L.A., determined to uncover the mystery of what happened to her, all the time bombarded with a constant barrage of hidden and subliminal messages along with shady cults, a popular band, a pirate, a paranoid comic book writer, a mysterious songwriter, a notorious dog killer and the king of the homeless people. Among other things.
With this film, Mitchell seems to want to create his own gritty, pulp-y, neo-noir mystery and the end result is certainly a unique, hypnotic and slightly disturbing one. It’s one of those films where there aren’t many easy answers and it’s all open to multiple interpretations regarding what it’s actually about – a film that lays down multiple “clues” and hints while also introducing many random and surreal characters. It’s very similar to something like Inherent Vice or Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with its initially simple mystery that eventually spirals into one very bad drug trip, and it also calls to mind something like Mulholland Drive and there are also nods to Rear Window and Vertigo – made perfectly clear when we see the former’s movie poster and also a tombstone with the name “HITCHCOCK” on it.
For the most part, Silver Lake works because there’s almost always something unique, dark and mesmerising happening on screen and if you get on board early on, then letting yourself get taken down this very bleak rabbit hole can prove to be an unsettling and hypnotic experience. Although it occasionally gets a little too unpleasant and mean spirited, the film should be commended for its uncompromisingly weird and dark tone, giving us something very different from most of the films around today, and adding to feature’s intoxicating ambience is the score by Disasterpeace; though it’s occasionally a bit much, it fits the tone of the film very well, initially creating that Hitchcockian vibe, and it goes a long way in making Silver Lake such a magnetic and disturbing affair.
And there’s also, not one, but two R.E.M. songs on the soundtrack so bravo for that!
However, the film has its flaws. Most noticeably (to me, anyway), the film is committed to planting as many “clues”, hints and red herrings as possible, attempting to create this grand, sprawling, unsolvable mystery, as well as throwing in tons of odd characters in an effort to make the film as distinctly weird and provocative as possible but Mitchell goes a little overboard with it all and should’ve been reigned in a bit. The film does, thankfully, take a little time to eventually solve things but too much time is dedicated to inserting so many false leads and general weirdness but all of this comes at the expense of satisfying narrative progression.
I think that with this film, Mitchell is attempting to create his own Mulholland Drive, Inherent Vice or something akin to the works of Hitchcock but, ambitious as he is, he doesn’t have the same mastery over his story that those maestros had and although the film mostly looks and feels the part, he doesn’t fully understand what it is that makes a properly timeless, surreal, trippy mystery.
In the main role, seemingly appearing in every single scene, this is Andrew Garfield as we’ve never seen him before and he wholeheartedly dives into the character of Sam; as a true slacker who is dead set against working, preferring to spend his time spying on his female neighbours or assaulting pre-teen vandals, he’s not exactly a likeable protagonist but Garfield is never insufferable or detestable and although we may not like him, we still will him to succeed as he hunts for Sarah. Garfield gives his all to the role and ultimately gives us a conflicted and unusual protagonist, effectively showing what could be madness as he frantically tries to decode many hidden messages (are there subliminal messages or is he imagining it all?) and save the girl he barely knows.
Elsewhere, Riley Keough is well cast as the enigmatic missing girl of the piece (what Katherine Waterston was to Inherent Vice) and she’s right at home in this neo-noir environment, Jimmi Simpson and Rikki Lindhome give able support as two of Sam’s friends, and, fresh from his success with BlacKkKlansman, Topher Grace is a welcome addition as Sam’s equally voyeuristic friend. There are also several compelling supporting performances from actors who only appear in maybe one or two scenes and they all contribute to making the film as weird as possible: standouts include Luke Baines, Grace Van Patten, Patrick Fischler, India Menuez, David Yow, Don McManus and Jeremy Bobb, who gives perhaps the most compelling and magnetic performance as an influential songwriter, participating in one of the film’s strongest scenes.