In the cheerfully muddled L.A. noir “Under the Silver Lake,” Sam (Andrew Garfield), a young slacker-sleuth trying to find a missing woman, gets sprayed in the face by a skunk. It’s a rare act of animal self-defense in this sprawling detective fiction, whose critter casualties include a fallen squirrel and several murdered dogs. But Sam doesn’t let the stench of failure get the better of him; just as Jake Gittes was left with a gruesome nose injury for most of “Chinatown,” so the odor of skunk will follow Sam around the rest of the movie, prompting a chorus of variations on the question “What stinks?”
For some, the answer might be the movie itself, which was supposed to open last June but has since taken on the unmistakable whiff of a film maudit. Following a divisive reception at Cannes, “Under the Silver Lake” was delayed from release for almost a year, amid rumors of possible recuts. In any case, it reemerges with the same 139-minute running time as before, and it remains a terminally, sometimes enjoyably overstuffed potboiler that moves to its own poky, meandering rhythms. (It will also be available for home streaming soon after its theatrical release, which has been interpreted by many as a vote of no confidence by its distributor.)
The writer-director David Robert Mitchell can take some comfort in the fact that his latest will be embraced by an ardent few, and indeed has been already. That’s hardly the least fitting outcome for a movie that has been elaborately designed as an object of cult worship. More densely plotted than his two previous features, “The Myth of the American Sleepover” and “It Follows,” and accordingly far less disciplined, “Under the Silver Lake” is Mitchell’s shoot-the-moon passion project, his impudent spin on great L.A. noirs such as “Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Long Goodbye” and “Mulholland Dr.” It’s the puzzle as pastiche, at once an absurdist riff and an endearing, elephantine folly.
The intensity of Mitchell’s genre scholarship, built on a lifetime’s repository of old movies, TV shows and pop songs, is not without its pleasures. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his designated avatar is played, with a certain moody, tetchy aplomb, by one of the more watchable actors of his generation. For Garfield, after the strenuous heroics of “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Silence” and “Breathe,” it must have been a relief to play a deadbeat who smokes, drinks, has sex, breaks into apartments, crashes parties and beats up naughty kids (not all at the same time).
A scruffy layabout with a yen for puzzles and paranoia, Sam is like a distant young relation of Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye,” with bits of “The Big Lebowski’s” The Dude and “Inherent Vice’s” Doc Sportello spliced into his DNA for good measure. The scene in which he pleasures himself to escort ads in the L.A. Weekly is not the only example of this movie’s insistently retro sensibilities.
Sam spends his days watching old movies from his VHS collection and enduring phone calls with his mother, who is obsessed with Janet Gaynor. The walls of his rent-overdue apartment are decorated with vintage movie posters. One of these is for “Rear Window,” just in case you missed the metaphorical significance of his voyeur-friendly Silver Lake apartment complex, where he has an unobstructed view of a topless female neighbor and, in short order, a sunbathing blonde named Sarah (Riley Keough).
Sarah is the movie’s Marilyn Monroe figure — and again, just in case you weren’t aware, she replays a famous skinny-dipping scene from the never-finished 1962 Monroe vehicle “Something’s Got to Give.” She also soon vanishes under ominous circumstances that, Sam becomes convinced, are rooted in a nefarious conspiracy, clues to which can be found in cereal-box treasure maps and various hobo signs etched around the city. Before long he is sucked into a labyrinth crawling with bubble-gum starlets, horny billionaires, nude assassins in animal masks, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula (they’re a band) and a comic-book aficionado (Patrick Fischler) who records the city’s urban legends in a black-and-white zine that gives this movie its title.
Los Angeles has, of course, long been a magnet for tales of vice and corruption, and for beauties who come to the city with dreams of love and stardom, only to see them blossom then wilt in the harsh California sunshine. Perfectly appointed from its Hollywood Forever Cemetery shindigs to its downtown rooftop pool parties (the production designer is Michael Perry), “Under the Silver Lake” seeks to avail itself of this rich, seedy iconography. But despite (or perhaps due to) its obsessive footnoting, its narrative zig-zags and its leisurely stretches of downtime, it never gets beyond a superficial, cosmetic engagement.
For a while you can swoon to the Bernard Herrmann-esque strains of a Disasterpeace score and groove on Mike Gioulakis’ crisp, enveloping widescreen images. The camera casts an appreciative eye over the landscape, which, by the movie’s definition, includes not only Echo Park Lake and the Griffith Observatory but also the many scantily clad young women who cross Sam’s path, often in threes. All of them are ogled with a kind of gleeful horndog obtuseness that the movie attempts to pass off as auto-critique, at one point dropping a line about “the male gaze” amid the party chatter.
It isn’t nearly enough. But in the same spirit, I will attempt some small self-correction of my own. Writing about this movie briefly from Cannes last year, I noted that “I found its self-indulgence surprisingly easy to roll with.” That was true then and it’s true enough now, though after a second viewing I’m more dubious about exactly where we’re rolling.
Maybe downhill, into the subterranean catacombs where — in one of the movie’s wilder conspiracy theories — the most powerful and influential among us hoard their darkest secrets. They maintain their hold on our consciousness, meanwhile, by subliminally weaponizing our entertainment media, embedding messages in the lyrics of pop songs and the stories of movies and television shows, all instruments in a vast and insidious campaign of mind control.
If this were true, it might lend “Under the Silver Lake” an air of retroactive significance or subversiveness. Maybe this unceremoniously jettisoned movie — not the movie the industry doesn’t want you to see, just another movie it doesn’t care if you see or not — really does hold the key to unknown truths of the universe. Maybe the emptiness that Sam feels, as a young millennial with few prospects beyond his handsome face and a head full of pop-culture minutiae, is more than a mere reflection of this picture’s own nagging emptiness.
Maybe streaming is the ideal way to experience it after all, the better to hit the pause button and scan every frame of its lovingly detailed surface. You can scribble down movie titles for future viewing (start with “How to Marry a Millionaire”), and unscramble the codes and clues that Mitchell has fastidiously tucked away in his characters’ home decorations and T-shirt patterns. Whether you will find anything of lasting meaning is less certain. “Under the Silver Lake” is rarely uninteresting, but it smells a little staler than it should.
‘Under the Silver Lake’
Rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language throughout and some drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes