UNDER THE SILVER LAKE’s Long, Strange Trip

The first trailer for Under the Silver Lake, director David Robert Mitchell’s L.A. neo-noir follow up to his nifty horror picture It Follows, landed on YouTube in March of 2018. It was headed for a summer release, and it appeared to be at least an interesting, esoteric indie that should find its audience. Then it stumbled at Cannes; that’s when A24, one of the torch bearers of indie cinema the last decade, became uncharacteristically gun shy.

Mitchell’s film was moved to December of 2018, then it was pushed to April 19, but by the time that date rolled around, there was no longer a wide theatrical release. It was unceremoniously dumped into a few theaters, then unloaded on VOD three days later. The whole  boondoggle was out of character for A24, a studio who champions new independent voices in all genres, and Mitchell’s It Follows was a grassroots hit for the studio in their earlier days. Burying his sophomore effort felt like an odd choice, no matter what the conflicts or concerns may have been – added to the fact that it was fairly easy to find defenders of the film without much effort.

Viewing Under the Silver Lake through the prism of delays upon delays, and a surprising lack of confidence, it’s easy to spot where Mitchell’s film could have been a cause for concern. It is far too long for the material in Mitchell’s screenplay; it’s 139 minutes when 110 would cure what ails the film. It wants to capture the meandering listless mood of our “hero,” the well-worn L.A. deadbeat archetype played this time by a squirrelly, squinting Andrew Garfield, and it does to a fault at times.

Garfield plays Sam, who feels like a combination of Elliiot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, The Dude, and “Doc” Sportello, the super-stoned hero at the center of Inherent Vice. Only Sam isn’t stoned as much as he’s drunk, and horny, and Under the Silver Lake drops us into Sam’s vintage L.A. apartment building right away, where he spies on the topless hippie neighbor and invites a young actress friend (Riki Lindhome) over for some casual sex. In no time, Sam’s perfectly curated life of leisure is interrupted by Sarah, the girl in the white bikini played by Riley Keough, who entrances Sam one night before promptly disappearing into thin air the next morning.

This happens in short order, and the rest of the film is Sam trying – albeit with minimal effort – to find Sarah. His investigation takes him into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, a place most movie fans know well, a place of weirdos and powerful conspirators pulling invisible strings. It’s best to leave the discoveries, and the sidebars, a secret, because that’s really the best part of these sun-drenched neo noirs. The destination rarely matters; the journey is key.

For the most part, Mitchell’s gorgeous film drifts in an out of scenarios at apartments, motels, and eccentric Hollywood parties. There are echoes of too many pictures to count here, but the film typically manages to balance pastiche with uniqueness and Garfield is surprisingly perfect in the role. He has a great confused scowl. In the end, however, like so many films in this genre, more time at the editing bay would help the picture flow more cleanly. The propulsive nature of the first hour to ninety minutes fizzles out in the end, but it’s not enough to ruin the finished product.

The runtime could have been the major sticking point for A24, and perhaps Mitchell was unbending on his vision. If that’s the case, it’s understood. Mitchell had no obligation to fit his fit into a runtime I would appreciate, but perhaps if the studio was asking for edits, they had more on their mind than fitting enough screenings in each day. Regardless, the willingness to push Under the Silver Lake down the line over and over makes no sense when the studio has made their name on releasing abstruse art, especially since there is plenty to love in David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature.

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Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER Starts Weird, Finishes Strong

It seems like those Nicole Kidman set photos from Karyn Kusama’s stark LA crime noir Destroyer had been around for years, before the film itself was granted an uber-limited theatrical release and quickly pushed aside at the end of 2018. Kidman, looking haggard and sallow and baked to a crisp by the unforgiving SoCal sun, plays Erin Bell, a detective in the City of Angels whose troubled past has left her a husk of a human. But Kidman’s look is so off putting, so uncanny, that it’s all there is to the first act of the picture. The story that unfolds is a distant second early on, but fortunately the second half settles in to a rather riveting – if deathly serious – Point Break riff.

Destroyer jumps back and forth in time as we follow Bell from a fresh-faced cop infiltrating a sadistic LA gang with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), to this strange, warped, broken woman in the “present day” thread. Current day Erin drinks, drifts around town, and has quite a problem on her hands with a rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) whose new boyfriend is up to no good. The setup of all these elements stumble out of the film while we adjust to Kidman’s look.

Comparisons were made to Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but there is something more naturalistic about Theron’s sun-poisoned serial killer; it’s difficult to pin down, what is so distracting about Kidman’s appearance, but there’s no getting around it early on while you try, frustratingly, to put pieces in place. Kusama has a specific vision of this Los Angeles, sharp concrete angles and open spaces, heat, death, not a single shot of ocean water to be seen. She is going for a mood, you can see it, but the story isn’t cooperating through the first hour.

The second half of Destroyer pivots to something altogether more engaging and exciting, once you’re able to adjust to Kidman’s appearance (mileage may vary from viewer to viewer). The flashbacks to Erin’s undercover sting, her relationship with Chris, and the eventual disaster that ruined her life almost two decades prior  are able to punch up the plot, and a tense bank robbery sequence shows Kusama’s abilities to handle action well. There is a minor twist, some reveals along the way, and plenty of terrific camerawork as the film draws to a more satisfying close than what could have ever been predicted in the beginning.

Despite the look, Nicole Kidman is giving everything to her role here. It’s been an incredible few years for the Aussie legend, and Destroyer is another daring move from an actress who seems to be settling into an incredible second act. This is also a film almost entirely about Kidman’s Erin Bell, so much so that the supporting players practically don’t register as characters sometimes. They are all fine, and don’t distract, but in the end they all feel like ciphers put in place to tell Erin’s story.

Destroyer is a half-misstep for Kusama, whose last film, The Invitation, was one of the best of 2015 (and Jennifer’s Body is thankfully getting the cultural reappraisal it deserves). It’s tough to fault her direction, which shines in the second half; the fault is more in the meandering opening act and DOA delivery of these first few scenes than anything Kusama tries. Again, though, it all comes down to Kidman, who is able to fight through a strange makeup decision to turn the film into something worth seeing.