Quite often, follow-ups to breakthrough movies tend to the indulgent – as a suddenly bankable director gets to make the passion project that’s been in their head all along, and is convinced that an attenuated running time is necessary to cram in all the cool stuff. I’d heard that narrative applied to writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, which follows (ahem) his modern horror classic It Follows and certainly has the look and feel of a personal project designed to encompass the whole sum of knowledge. The word from those hungover party crits at Cannes was poor, but – as is sometimes the case – way off the mark … the indulgence and the maundering is part of the point, and every little detail and odd footnote here justifies its presence.
Sam (Andrew Garfield), one of the few characters gifted with a name, slobs about in the memorabilia-cluttered apartment he is due to be evicted from, gazing at bikini girl Sarah (Riley Keough) – a mash-up of Marilyn and Hitchcock blonde – and then becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of her sudden disappearance from the apartment complex even though they’d made a date to watch How to Marry a Millionaire together. The mode here is of reference to referential films, with nods to Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski easily peeled away to discern lifts from Altman’s The Long Goodbye – which, itself, is deeply threaded through the Chandleresque world of Hawks’ The Big Sleep, itself a comic gloss on a more disenchanted novel. One trail leads via an underground comic book to a conspiracy theorist (Patrick Zischler) obsessed with the legends of Los Angeles – including the Silver Lake dog-killer, who appears in animated inserts, and the Owl’s Kiss, a vampire-like bird-headed nude female assassin. Another prompts Sam to decode a hit number from hot band Jesus and the Brides of Dracula (they’re hilarious) which leads him to a secret master of the universe known as the Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) who has perpetuated all the pop culture Sam (and the film) consumes as part of a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the sort of so-rich-they’re-basically-SPECTRE shadow rulers F. Scott FitzGerald theorised about in ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’.
We get a tour of the city taking in parties, clubs, mansions, empty streets, the Griffith Park observatory – where a bust of James Dean is placed, associating a real building with a fictional film – and of course Bronson Canyon where a white tent is set up beside that tunnel which served as Adam West’s Batcave, a murder in Short Cuts, Scar’s retreat in The Searchers, the lair of Robot Monster and It Conquered the World and the site of the screen’s scariest kiss in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Pretty much all of these are tied into Under the Silver Lake, which riffs on Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho too – and that’s before we even get to gags like Garfield gummily picking up a near-mint issue of The Amazing Spider-Man or a moving, sweet strand in which his mother phones him up to a recommend a Janet Gaynor film and he later wakes up after a passed-out night’s sleep on the star’s grave. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe was at least a professional private eye and Jeff Bridges’ Dude content to amble along and take the occasional gig, but the joke about Sam is that he dodges every question about what he actually does for work while he delves into a labyrinth of mystery. He rants about hating the homeless literally twenty-four hours before the extended deadline to pay his rent or get put out on the street – and makes no attempts to monetise his sleuthing, raise cash by selling off his many vintage posters or magazines, or simply get a job – and, in the end, he might mostly get by as a gigolo, tossed out of his apartment but shacking up with the older ‘topless bird woman’ (Wendy Veuven Heuvel) across the walkway … unless the very real conspirators notice him enough to tidy up that loose end.
It’s a slacker comedy with a violent streak – a very funny early scene has Sam catch some kids who have scratched a dick on his car and giving them an adult beatdown, which presages gruesome S. Craig Zahler-style practical gore later in the day. An Altman-sized cast includes many female eccentrics (Riki Lindholme, Callie Hernandez, Zosia Mamet, Grace Van Patten, Bobbi Menuez, Sydney Sweeney) who could be the Owl’s Kiss, and a compliment of mixed-up monomaniac guys – Topher Grace, Jimmi Simpson, Don McManus, Luke Baines (as Jesus) and David Yow (as the Homeless King). The score by Disasterpiece (Rich Vreeland) weaves old Hollywood style orchestral melodramatics with weird song choices, including a truly bizarre cover of the theme to ‘To Sir With Love’.