David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 teen horror It Follows is up there with Jordan Peele’s Get Out as one of the best scary movies of the last decade. It was a lean, stripped back study of teenage anxiety and the perils of sexual awakening.
For his new movie he takes a different tack, turning out a sprawling, plodding thing, lacking a coherent narrative structure, which nevertheless coagulates into something wonderful.
It’s clearly a passion project, a love letter to Mitchell’s myriad influences. There are nods to Paul Thomas Anderson’s rambling neo-noir Inherent Vice, echoes of Sophia Coppola’s breathy love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, bizarre cult-hysteria straight from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, hat-tips to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. But most of all it’s a homage to Hitchcock: chase scenes through hazy LA cityscapes are set to a jaunty, Golden Age soundtrack; the camera hovers lustily over every blonde in sight; it even begins with protagonist Sam, a layabout stoner, sitting on his balcony spying on his neighbours through a pair of binoculars.
Like James Stewart’s character in Rear Window, Sam is bored and desperate for adventure; when it arrives, in the form of a soon-to-disappear-presumed-dead-neighbour who looks like Marilyn Monroe, Sam tumbles down a Lynchian rabbit hole leading to raunchy underground music recitals and sex cults for the super-rich.
It’s set in contemporary LA, but Mitchell’s film has a decidedly analogue feel: Sam wears an 8-bit video game T-shirt and reads pulpy home-made zines (there are two animated sections in which these strange tales come to life in the style of comics artist Charles Burns).
When Sam attempts to unravel the mystery, he does so as if it were a point-and-click adventure, combining disparate objects – a cereal toy, an old issue of a magazine, a pizza box – to create some unified, tin-foil hat theory about why LA is so messed up.
Andrew Garfield puts in the ultimate Andrew Garfield performance, so laid-back he’s horizontal, his puppy eyes straining for meaning that never comes.
It’s hard to say exactly what, if anything, Mitchell is trying to say. One particularly gripping scene sees Sam meet The Man, who makes him question the pop-culture references upon which his world is constructed.
But for the most part, Under the Silver Lake seems content to be a surreal wild goose chase. If that sounds like a bit of an ordeal… well, it sometimes is, but it’s also sweet and naive, and self-aware enough to laugh along at its more pompous moments. It’s the weirdest big budget film of year, and it is, I think, quite brilliant.