Back in 2001 the film Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal was released. It didn’t do much business but when it came to home video, the film met a far more pleasant fate: It became a cult classic and suddenly Richard Kelly’s near forgotten work was met with considerable acclaim.
It was deserved: Donnie Darko is a film that carried a lovely nostalgic bent which appealed to older (cough) viewers who lived through the 1980’s, when that film took place. But its themes regarding high school alienation struck a cord with younger viewers as well.
Flush with a new found success, Mr. Kelly parlayed that success in the creation of Southland Tales, a movie that… wasn’t very good.
In fact, its rare that I start seeing a film and have to shut it off, but Southland Tales was a film that, frankly, gave me a headache.
Self-indulgent seems almost too good a term to describe it.
Mr. Kelly’s subsequent career folded rather quickly. He re-edited Donnie Darko, creating a “director’s cut” which though I haven’t seen, have heard was nowhere near as good a film as the original theatrical version. His next film, 2009’s The Box, was met with both audience and critical scorn, and Mr. Kelly hasn’t been heard or seen since and for the past ten long years.
I point all this out because there are parallels -and significant differences- between Mr. Kelly’s career trajectory and writer/director David Robert Mitchell.
Mr. Mitchell’s big hit, 2014’s It Follows, is a damn good horror film, IMHO, confidently directed by Mr. Mitchell and incredibly tense and frightening.
Flush with success, Mr. Mitchell would follow up that film with Under The Silver Lake, a film which, like Mr. Kelly’s Southland Tales, was clearly an indulgence on Mr. Mitchell’s part, a film that likely would never have been made had Mr. Mitchell, like Mr. Kelly, had the clout to get investors to try his oddball project.
But, unlike Southland Tales, I found Under The Silver Lake (lets abbreviate it to USL) a far better work overall, though that doesn’t excuse some of its indulgences.
USL involves slacker/deadbeat Sam (Andrew Garfield) who lives in an apartment building in Hollywood and is about to be evicted from his apartment. He doesn’t take that -or just about anything- too terribly seriously. He has an actress girl friend who shows up for sex and watches an older -but not elderly- woman in an apartment opposite his who takes care of a bunch of parrots… while topless.
Then one day he spots a beautiful blonde (Riley Keough) bathing in the apartment building’s pool and is smitten by her. That night he bumps into her and spends a time in her apartment watching an old movie (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe, if memory serves) and as things get a little heated, her roommate and a few other oddball characters show up and Sam has to leave.
The next day, his neighbor’s apartment is completely cleaned out and the neighbor is gone.
This strange occurrence arouses the interest of Sam, who begins to investigate what happened to his neighbor, and in the course of the movie uncovers many of the secrets of La La Land.
USL is a film that one cannot view literally. Most of what we see and experience through Sam is symbolic and, sometimes, incredibly absurd. Sometimes, its so absurd as to be laughable… but not necessarily in a good way.
But unlike (once again) Southland Tales, USL presents us with more food for thought than the former film ever did, including some sequences (one involving an old Songwriter and another featuring Sam dancing in a club to What’s The Frequency Kenneth, the REM song) that are quite striking..
Having said all that, the movie does feel like a “light” or not quite successful version of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We get the whole Hollywood is a meat grinder storyline but with more absurd -again not in a necessarily good way- sequences than we should.
Still, when USL is good, its damn good but that doesn’t excuse the excesses or long runtime (the film clocks in at nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes and could have been trimmed down, IMHO, by at least a half hour without injuring the quality of the work).
USL, like Southland Tales, was hardly a hit. A24, the studio that released it and released such works as The VVitch, The Lighthouse, Hereditary, and Midsommar, appear to have lost faith in the movie when it was originally scheduled to be released and after a disastrous playing in Cannes a few years back. It was ultimately put out without much fanfare and doesn’t appear to have a BluRay release (I picked up a digital copy of it through VUDU when they were having a sale on A24 features).
In conclusion, USL is an odd bird of a film, self-indulgent and silly/stupid at times but at other times quite striking and thought provoking. I can only offer a mild recommendation, however, because the film is so strange it is just as likely to turn viewers off as it is to engage your interest.
For me, it was the later, but I won’t pretend to say the film works all the time.
Still, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could do much worse than spend time Under the Silver Lake.