It starts as an irresistible riff on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with Andrew Garfield standing in for Elliott Gould as an Angeleno stoner and Peeping Tom-turned-amateur-detective named Sam. It ends … well, we’re still not sure where this movie ends, exactly. In this wannabe spellbinder from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose breakthrough scarefest It Follows proved that he knows his way around a dreamscape, Sam is about to be evicted from the apartment he can’t pay the rent on. Comic books are strewn everywhere, plus a mysterious fanzine called Under the Silver Lake (cue an animated sequence from illustrator Milo Neuman).
When he’s not busy jerking off, Sam can be found playing Nintendo, fielding calls from his mother (who’s been watching a silent film, Seventh Heaven, with Janet Gaynor) and cracking the conspiracy theory he believes is hidden in pop-culture artifacts. Take notes, these references might add up to something later.
Right now, though, Sam is focused on Sarah (Riley Keough), the hot new neighbor he spies on with binoculars. Don’t think that poster of Hitchcock’s Rear Window is hanging on his wall for nothing. The two get stoned and watch TV together — it’s How To Marry a Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe, one of several more clues to put away for later. Keough, the eldest grandchild of Elvis Presley and an actress of note in such films as American Honey and Logan Lucky, certainly makes a alluring object of desire, though Mitchell’s obsession with female nudity borders on exploitation.
The plot, such as it is, kicks in when Sarah suddenly vanishes and Sam goes on a chase that uncovers the divide between L.A.’s haves and have-nots. A dog killer is on the loose. Wait, Sarah has a dog. A girl gang roams the streets. No worries, we’ve watched Sam beat up on two kids who fucked with his car. A famous tycoon is also M.I.A., just the kind of millionaire Sarah might want to marry. Mitchell connects the dots in ways both pretentious and crushingly banal. The fall from It Follows to this confused noir pastiche is staggering.
Still, he’s too gifted an artist to write off for one slip up. He’s drunk on the possibilities of cinema, and in tandem with ace cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, he lays on the atmosphere like nobody’s business. You can practically smell the rot under the Hollywood, U.S.A. glossy surfaces. This head-tripping detective story could really have been something if only Mitchell could stop playing existential mind games. Not even the haunting images and Garfield’s haggard intensity can disguise the gaping void where the film’s soul should be. There’s no there there.