As a cinephile, Sam (Garfield) should know better from watching enough Hitchcock films than to follow a beautiful ice cold blonde down into a rabbit hole mystery.
Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (he even has the binoculars), he’s trapped in a life he wants to escape (here, too much privilege, beauty, parties, and no work), albeit mentally not physically, and his escape is by watching. Sam is an entitled masculine jerk hiding underneath a good guy façade; one who effortlessly glides into parties, with women eager to do his bidding or help him out, and he responds eagerly with violence in the majority of situations without so much as an aggravation.
His voyeurism - here normalised as just what men do, whilst women exist to be looked at - leads him to Sarah (Keough) who is both parts Veronica Lake emerging from the shadows and Laura Palmer, a beautiful mysterious female with a frozen smile to hide the horrors being done to her. Sam’s sexual obsession to find the newly disappeared Sarah leads him on an odyssey through LA - here as its own character that can’t escape its past, but doesn’t want to. Young hipsters venerate their Hollywood idols but turn the ghosts of its past into nothing more sacred than tombs to desecrate at movie openings and party sites. LA’s past is like a corpse not yet grown cold- and it’s this imagery, of crypts of the cultural past, and the present as one big stasis to be buried under, haunts the film throughout. Partying is only a means to an end.
Another Sam, Sam Shepherd wrote that LA is not a place but a mythos, an idea, one insecure about its own lack of identity and history, one where people are floaters on the periphery (a notion that Sam will ironically echo when talking about the city’s homeless problem). A place where people come to ‘make it’ but wind up becoming nothing more than a flat image on a TV screen or a name on a tombstone.
The problem with all of the stylised beauty and pastiche of Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography is that it amplifies the retro viewpoint that these films had, particularly when dealing with female characters. Women here are puzzles to be solved or femme fatales deceptively clad in white to be wary of (also the owl woman, who is never fully realised or explained), two-dimensional characters that exist in the back pages of newspapers or the cover of playboy. The boundaries between existing for male pleasure and paying the price for it by suffering - albeit beautifully - are blurred.
Manson - another dark spot on LA’s history - is also brought to life through Sam’s lead into the obvious - women brainwashed into obeying cultish leaders, and the link between cult follower and sex worker is casually drawn with a flippant nod.
All the same, in stark contrast to his work in It Follows, where men and women alike were punished for sex, here women have no autonomy, nor seem to want to, and men are painted as victims; gawkers that are barked at (literally and metaphorically) and deemed to be wary of, but also the makers of culture, in one bizarre twist that features Jeremy Bobb as a songwriter claiming credit from everything for Nirvana to the Backstreet Boys.
The references aren’t enough to change a story that is as old as time, one of a man escaping himself through the cause of a doomed woman, only to find she isn’t doomed at all. Mitchell’s take on the Technicolor noir is crowded with cinematic and literary references, from Golden Age and Classical Hollywood, to superhero comic books, to subliminal messages in advertising, and it’s a twisty-turvy tale that’s both exhausting and maddening, only redeemed when the film dares to self reflexively mock Sam and his self-important quest.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL / STARRING: ANDREW GARFIELD, WENDY VANDEN HEUVEL, RILEY KEOUGH / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 15TH
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10