There is a wonderful eagerness with which Sam — Andrew Garfield (“Breathe”) at a career high — accepts the miraculous nonsense of “Under the Silver Lake.” His refusal to spend more than one perfect facial reaction questioning the bombardment of bizarre is, in large part, why director David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”) gets away with the most unrelentlessly odd film of the year. It’s how he out-Lynches Lynch and out-Jonzes Jonze.
Sam is 33, white, horny and unemployed in L.A. He’s not just “working on a script” unemployed, he’s directionless without seeming to want direction. Or rather, he thinks direction will come find him, preferably in the form of secret codes planted by other modern geniuses in popular culture.
When his mysterious neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough, “American Honey”) disappears as quickly and seamlessly as she appears, Sam is finally called to action. The universe demands he quit his day job of spying on his aging, topless neighbor and uncover what the hell is going on under the Silver Lake.
Sam follows the bread crumbs that align so perfectly (the film more than earns this narrative ease) it’s a wonder he didn’t plant them himself. He takes us through a version of L.A. that bears a striking resemblance to “La La Land.” Not in its choice landmarks per se, but in the way it constructs the city around cinematic homage. Extremely meta. But while “La La Land” earns charm from its referential existence, “Silver Lake” gets an added layer of unease. What came first: Los Angeles or the on-screen version of it?
Mitchell has more than just Hollywood in his sights though, as Sam’s journey drags the audience deeper and deeper into the maze (sometimes literally) of the film’s plot. It becomes obvious Sam believes the world was created just for him. Beyond the codes and keys and messages in songs, Sam believes he deserves everything just because he exists. His undeserved want manifests itself brilliantly in the way he views women. From the moment we meet him, behind a pair of binoculars on his porch, Sam is the leering male gaze incarnated. He wants women so they should want him. He wants sex so he deserves it. The infatuation that sets the plot in motion is born, more than anything, out of an unresolved sexual fantasy.
Andrew Garfield’s specifically twitchy brand of skinny-guy acting has never been better. He is equal parts compelling and unsettling as Sam. It is as satisfying to see him succeed, as it is to see him fail.
“Under the Silver Lake” plants a thousand seeds and reaps every single one. Although inane, the trail Sam follows is airtight. Every twist and turn pays off. As he did with his other two features, Mitchell reimagines what is possible for a genre and pushes his film well beyond the limits of the expected. “Under the Silver Lake” is brilliantly acted, a perfect neo-noir and a biting social commentary. And it’s fun — it’s so much fun.