“The film is a mystery and there are mysteries inside of that mystery, and some of the characters could be considered mysteries themselves,” says David Robert Mitchell. “Will I explain any of them? No.”
We’re sitting in the cafeteria at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory last May, and the 44-year-old writer-director, unshaven with middle-parted Jesus hair, is politely but not so helpfully answering my questions about Under the Silver Lake, his new, deliberately overcomplicated surrealist neo-noir, which at the time was scheduled to premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival the following week and open in theaters a month later.
If you know who Mitchell is, it’s probably as the filmmaker behind It Follows, the 2015 thriller about a young woman who, after sleeping with a sketchy new boyfriend, is stalked through the Detroit suburbs by a supernatural pedestrian who will kill her unless she passes the curse to another sexual partner. Mining high-end scares from its deceptively low-end premise, It Follows was, at least by Rotten Tomatoes’ measure, the best-reviewed American horror film in nearly three decades and helped light the fuse for the recent boom in well-made scary movies that have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and even occasionally been described, with a straight face, as prestigious.
This movie is not like that movie, or at least not too much like it. Both operate on similarly demented dream logic, eke miracles out of relatively small budgets, and hide entire subplots in the corners of Mitchell’s fussily composed frames. But while It Follows had mysteries of its own, it tended to please audiences in a single 100-minute sitting. Silver Lake, in contrast, is 140 minutes long, and even its main story has “a lot of hidden layers to it,” according to Mitchell, who adds, “It might be impossible to see all of them on a first viewing or even a second.”
Was Mitchell worried about how Silver Lake would be received at Cannes, where audiences would deliver verdicts after seeing it just the one time? “The goal was to make a bold statement,” he says. “It’s an intentional shot across the bow, a bit of a fuck-you. I’m sure there will be a range of reactions.”
He’s right. Critics at the festival called Silver Lake “wonderfully weird,” “the work of a potentially major artist,” and “a wandering fartscape.” A few thought it was misogynistic, but others saw a biting prosecution of straight white male privilege. It was shut out of awards, and Mitchell was hammered in interviews with questions about the film’s male gaze. But the mixed reaction, plus a stylish trailer that debuted just before Cannes, helped confer on Silver Lake an instant cult status — which only grew when the distributor, A24, pushed back the film’s release to December and then again to this month. For certain types, it might by now be more anticipated than the new Avengers movie it will share theaters with. (Silver Lake will open in New York and L.A. on April 19 and then become available on VOD the following week.)
Silver Lake isn’t for everybody. But if you like meandering, California-based detective stories in the tradition of Kiss Me Deadly through Inherent Vice, and especially if you like watching a director follow a hit with something strange and slightly impossible that probably wouldn’t have been made under any other circumstances, this film might be for you. It’s a stoned paraphrasing of The Long Goodbye and Mulholland Drive starring Andrew Garfield as Sam, an unemployed 33-year-old Angeleno whose crush on his downstairs neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), tips over into obsession when she disappears along with her roommates and everything in their apartment. Sam goes searching for her through the city’s gentrified Eastside while finding hidden codes in movies, music, and magazines that lead him into ever-weirder side plots — a naked woman with the head of an owl, an elderly pianist who may have ghostwritten every pop song of the past century — all of which he decides are connected in one big conspiracy.
We realize gradually, or at least we’re supposed to, that Sam is not the most dependable narrator. He beats up two young boys after they egg his car, says mean things about the homeless, and claims Vanna White talks to him through his TV. We keep hearing that somebody’s been killing dogs around L.A., and Sam carries biscuits in his pockets despite not owning any pets. Women find him irresistible — possibly because he looks like Andrew Garfield, as charismatically dazed as ever — even though he ogles them and wears clothes that have been sprayed by a skunk. (“I like your shirt,” says one woman at a party. It’s a pit-stained Hanes undershirt.) Maybe Sam is less an underdog hero than an avatar of toxic male entitlement.
Silver Lake has been called a pre-#MeToo movie, but it may be a perfect fit in the age of QAnon, flat-earth theory, and so many kinds of “truthers.” “Sam could continue reaching for things, but he’s given up,” says Mitchell. “Maybe he’s thinking, What’s the point? When you’re a kid, people tell you that you can be whatever you want, and then you realize that’s not necessarily true. Even being able to buy a house, for our generation, is like a near-impossible task. So how do you process that? Maybe you go looking for meaning in strange places.”
Garfield says he expected Silver Lake to polarize: “It definitely wasn’t a project I went into going, ‘This is gonna be the next Forrest Gump.’ It’s the anti–Forrest Gump or the anti–La La Land. It’s a darker, skewed look at the collective consciousness of a city defined by capitalist, misogynistic, patriarchal, superficial values that have led people astray. It’s fascinating to me that people might miss the clues, and I think that says quite a lot about what they want to see rather than what’s being presented.”
When Garfield took the part, he’d just played a Jesuit priest in Silence and a conscientious objector to WWII in Hacksaw Ridge, so he was eager for the work-related excuse to behave antisocially. “The great thing about being an actor is you get to do terrible things and not actually do them,” he says. “There was a moment when I stick a raw egg in a kid’s face and I had to do it a bunch of times, and one time there was an egg with a pretty thick shell that didn’t break. I was like, Oh God. That probably hurt a little. The kid was having a great time, but it’s a lot of responsibility when you’re fake-beating the shit out of children.”
Mitchell calls me a week after Cannes, describing the premiere as “wonderful and difficult. I always knew the film would be divisive, but you never know quite to what degree,” he says. “But if I have a frustration, it’s that some people have perceived the film to be misogynistic, which is personally very painful. I just so strongly disagree. This character is disconnected from the world and is struggling with feelings of misogyny — that’s a core element of what this movie is about. I assume that most people will see him beating up children and staring at women’s asses as offensive behavior, and I don’t think I need to constantly tell everyone that. For people to imagine that we’re celebrating it is just disappointing.”
Mitchell grew up in Clawson, Michigan, and in the eighth grade wrote his first screenplay, an unauthorized sequel to Ghostbusters.(“It was 90 pages and terrible, but I really thought something was going to happen with it.”) He went to Wayne State University and then Florida State’s graduate film school, where he met collaborators he’d stick with through Silver Lake, including cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and producer Adele Romanski (who also produced Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, by fellow FSU alum Barry Jenkins).
Mitchell’s first movie was 2011’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, a quiet, no-budget coming-of-age drama about suburban high-schoolers pondering their impending grown-up-hood. After that, he wrote a few scripts, one a variation on the same theme: more kids, more suburbs, more dawning awareness of one’s mortality, except this time with a shape-shifting, neck-breaking demon to personify that awareness.
Horror movies were no easy sell in 2012, when Mitchell was pitching Hollywood on It Follows. “Nobody gave a shit,” he says. “Everybody told me, ‘Horror is dead. Maybe if you’d had this idea ten years ago, we could have done something with it.’ ” Eventually, he cut a few expensive scenes and reduced his budget to “a very painful” $1 million, which did the trick. It Follows’ release in four theaters was hastily expanded after strong reviews and snowballed into a $23 million worldwide haul — not blockbuster numbers but enough to show the potential of a smart horror movie as well as help Mitchell secure Silver Lake’s $8 million budget.
(In a foreshadowing of the controversy over Silver Lake, a few critics thought the monster from It Follows was an STD meant to slut-shame the protagonist, but any alleged abstinence-only agenda would’ve been lost on viewers who were rooting for the character to lose the curse by any intercourse necessary.)
“I’m proud that It Follows was one of the first horror films that broke through in this era,” Mitchell says. “But I’m also jealous because right now, if you’re an indie director with a horror script, you can probably get that thing made.”
Who knows how long that loophole will stay open, though. He admits the “territory’s not so friendly” nowadays for those looking to do anything idiosyncratic. Take, for example, Under the Silver Lake’s twice-delayed release date. What was that about? “You’d have to ask A24,” he told me a few weeks ago. “If it were up to me, I would’ve loved the film to have come out last summer. But they’re the distributor and this is the time they think is best, so I have to defer to them.” (A24 declined to comment.)
Mitchell says he never considered making changes to the movie after Cannes: “We’re all really proud of it and wouldn’t have showed it at Cannes or anywhere else if it wasn’t the movie we wanted it to be.”
Since then, he’s been writing full-time. He did a pass on a sci-fi script called Man Alive, to be made by Hiro Murai, director of TV’s Atlanta. He hopes to be in production on his own next movie by the end of the summer, but he can’t tell me what it is.
Meanwhile, Silver Lake is already streaming in some countries, which means it’s being freeze-framed, dissected, and decrypted. From the looks of the Under the Silver Lake sub-Reddit, a cult movie has found its cult. In one recent post, a user wondered whether the names Sam and Sarah plus the Kurt Cobain poster in Sam’s bedroom are references to the samsara and Nirvana of Buddhism, which could mean the whole movie is Sam’s dying fever dream. Another user converted a wall pattern in one scene into binary code before somebody else pointed out that the scene was filmed in a real location and the pattern had not been put there by the production. Silver Lake’s credits do include a “cryptography consultant,” though, and there are several codes hidden in the movie, one of which seems to translate to coordinates for a real, dangerously inaccessible location in the Sierra Nevadas. (Nobody’s gone there yet, or at least gone there and survived to report back.) “That I don’t know about,” says Mitchell in a tone that implies he does. “But it’s nice to hear people are seeing some of the layers.”
*A version of this article appears in the April 15, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!