We’ll call it the “Garfield Rule” — not the comic strip, the actor. It holds that any performance by Andrew Garfield, on screen or stage, will be worth seeing, no matter the content.
After watching “Under the Silver Lake,” a self-described “neo-noir thriller” by writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”), I’m still a firm believer in this rule, perhaps even more so — because only a legendarily committed actor like Garfield could make such an ambitiously murky (or murkily ambitious?) endeavor watchable, let alone for two hours and 19 minutes.
Yes, almost two and a half hours. And here, length DOES matter, because up to a point, one can accept the feeling of being helplessly lost in Mitchell’s stylish and beautifully crafted but maddeningly mind-bending Los Angeles dreamscape. At a certain juncture, though, you need to feel tethered — to something.
And by that we mean anything. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative to string these often seductive scenes together. And the constant rabbit holes we’re led down are fine, to a point. But a sustainable core to the character would be nice. Not a moral core, just maybe an emotional guidepost to better understand where he’s coming from. That, too, is elusive.
“Under the Silver Lake,” so named for the hipster LA neighborhood where it takes place, is the story of Sam (Garfield), a 33-year-old … well, we’re searching for a noun here, but it’s not clear what Sam does, or is. We do know he’s currently unemployed, and lives alone in a cluttered apartment with a balcony from which he can spy, with low-tech binocs (a la “Rear Window,” one of countless old Hollywood references) on women nearby. This includes the wacky, topless “bird lady” on a nearby terrace, and a new neighbor, lovely Sarah (Riley Keough), who shows up one day in the swimming pool.
Although Sam, despite the lack of a discernible direction in life, still has no problem getting female companionship (an actress friend comes by periodically in different costumes for quick dalliances), he becomes enchanted with Sarah, a blonde who favors ruby-red lipstick and seems to be channeling Marilyn Monroe. And then, suddenly, in the middle of the night, Sarah disappears — and her little dog, too.
The dog detail is important, because a dog killer seems to be on the loose in Silver Lake, terrifying the neighborhood. At the same time, a billionaire has gone missing. Then, a gruesome discovery emerges that seems to link Sarah, who may have left a coded message behind, with the billionaire. But how, and why?
Sam commits himself with admirable resolve to finding out, with apparent disregard for his personal safety. He becomes an amateur gumshoe, his quest taking him from one strange house party to another. What these parties seem to share is mysterious, scantily clad young women and really, really great views. But we digress.
It feels pointless to elaborate more on the plot here, and perhaps antithetical to the film’s mood, anyway. Mitchell surely doesn’t intend for his viewers to be taking notes; a healthy state of confusion is rather the point.
But, alas, a film reviewer does need to take notes, and what I found in my reporter’s pad later was way more confounding than my usual scribbles in the dark: “Beats up kid with eggs, ugh.” ”Bites the cookie, uh oh.” ”Dances to R.E.M., nice!” ”Gets sick, now he’s in a graveyard.” ”HOW are they going to end this?” ”Follows coyote to another party?”
If all that sounds appealing, “Under the Silver Lake” may be for you a satisfying experience, a sort of high-gloss, nicely crafted daydream with a good score and generous references to LA noir films like “The Long Goodbye,” ”Chinatown,” ”Mullholland Drive” and “Inherent Vice,” plus an obvious love of pop culture, from Hollywood classics to graphic novels.
So sit back and enjoy. But be warned: You’re gonna have to follow the coyote to another party.
‘Under the Silver Lake’
A24 presents a film written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language throughout and some drug use). Running time: 139 minutes. Available Tuesday on demand.