For Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg made a point of removing all pop culture references to his own films, to avoid distraction from the wider artistic homage in motion. In contrast, Under the Silver Lake director David Robert Mitchell pays tribute to a history of iconic movies and music, and deliberately leaves a breadcrumb trail to his previous films, just for fun. And when Andrew Garfield (as the film’s bumbling protagonist, Sam) scrutinizes an Amazing Spider-Man comic, it’s nothing more than a happy coincidence.
After the Critics’ Week successes The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) and It Follows (2014), Mitchell completes a Cannes hat trick with his first competition entry; a sprawling, painfully stylish and skittish noir odyssey. It’s no modest neighbourhood inquiry — Under the Silver Lake twists and turns with fantastical and illogical conspiracy porn over a taxing 140-minute runtime. Garfield carries the film as an unreliable voyageur, with a simultaneously dogged and lazy catalyst to find his neighbour, Sarah, who has mysteriously vanished.
Sam’s smarmy, juvenile male gaze is inescapable. His Rear Window-inspired peoplewatching limits itself to a spying fascination for his female neighbours’ semi-naked bodies. There isn’t any taboo around nudity in the film — Sam himself is scruffily sexualised, consistently — but there is a clear lenience and emphasis on an unromantic, fetichised depiction of the women Sam finds attractive. So, that’s all of them.
But if the female characters are given little agency, it’s because Sam himself is pretty disagreeable. He has sex with his t-shirt and socks on while staring at his prized Kurt Cobain poster. He violently beats up kids for keying his car. He takes an alarmingly long time to count to seven. Mitchell’s characters revolve in a world of pathetic self-consciousness that is as grating as it is alluring. It’s an outstanding performance for Garfield, no longer playing The Social Network or Breathe stories of someone else’s life; Sam is a nobody, an unemployed, uninspired wanderer obsessed with pop culture but tormented by the idea of what it all reallymeans.
“I think it’s fucking ridiculous to assume that media only has one purpose,” he mansplains to his casual actress girlfriend, while scrubbing away the skunk spray from his skin in the bathtub. As he follows his own red herrings down the rabbit hole — a pirate, an owl-faced unclothed murderer, a homeless king complete with his own crown — mystery and ridicule coalesce with entertaining volatility.
There’s a deliberately dense, not always sharp secrecy to Under the Silver Lake. It’s simple to dismiss as a messy distraction, and resign praise against its immature disrespect for, well, most people. But in such an ambitious trip that spirals across a history of Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe and so much unshakeable referential love, and through characters that are easy to hate, there is still so much to uncover. It’ll take more than a surface-level appreciation of Under the Silver Lake to grasp what lies beneath real threats, instinctive desire and a swilling indebtment to the world that has shaped who we are. Sarah admits to Sam: “There’s no getting out now, so I may as well make the best of it.” Prick your ears and read over your notes, because nothing is more hopeful than that.
Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and photographer based in London. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film & TV studies and maintains a passionate love for good design and great relationships on screen. She writes about film, TV and music for Little White Lies, the Independent and Into the Fold.