Under the Silver Lake (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Beware: “Under the Silver Lake” is a hundred forty minutes of writer-director David Robert Mitchell masturbating on film and then dunking the viewer’s head onto the pretentious bodily fluid. It is polarizing and perplexing… and yet the same time an argument can be made it is a passionate amalgamation of genres tied together by a central mystery. There is a saying that one man’s trash is another’s man’s treasure. To me, this is trash. Let me tell you why.
I found no enjoyment out of it. The question to be solved involves what really happened to a neighbor (Riley Keough) whom Sam (Andrew Garfield) developed a crush on over the course of one meeting. Sam’s initial investigation suggests that she perished in a car explosion along with two other women and a man. The story takes place in Hollywood and so it is insinuated that the neighbor is some sort of call girl. Throughout the picture the viewer is required to read in between the lines. At times we have no choice but to make assumptions based on other media we had consumed. While not a negative quality, the picture is filled to the brim with bizarre coincidences, many of them leading nowhere. One wonders eventually why the story must be told in a protracted manner. There is no reason for it but to punish even the most patient watchers.
Even Garfield’s performance is awkward and strange. Although I found it fresh that he has chosen to play a boyish loser who has five days left to pay his rent before getting evicted instead of yet another hero or some sort of genius, I did not believe his portrayal. There is not one second when I was not reminded that I was watching Garfield acting. The character’s sense of being changes from one scene to the next—so much so that at one point I wondered that perhaps Sam is a manic-depressive. Here is a man so desperate to find the girl that he wills himself to find clues that may or may not be there to discover. Sam is defined mostly through irrational behavior, but it is a critical miscalculation that the screenplay fails to move this figure beyond that.
It is supposed to be a neo-noir mystery-thriller with a sprinkling of comic touches. Way before the halfway point I caught my mind drifting toward Rian Johnson’s excellent “Brick.” In that film, the investigation is tightly paced, every character we come across matters, and the central mystery is so potent, we get the sneaky suspicion that it may not end well—for anyone. Yet it is not without a sense of humor. They talk funny, they act funny, even the pauses in between are funny. Together, these elements make all the difference. In Johnson’s film, the world is a living, breathing microcosm. In this film, on the other hand, nearly everything feels like plastic decoration. If this is the point, then the commentary is shallow. It is important to change gears once in a while.
If I wanted to watch a series of freaky moments that do not add up to anything significant, I’d log on YouTube. Despite the colorful eccentricities of “Under the Silver Lake,” the overarching message is that there is an insanity to Los Angeles (the mystery to be solved) and yet people all over the world (our protagonist) are drawn to its enigma and/or promise of a better life. But this is obvious, nothing new, certainly not fresh. Neither is its approach. It fails to command tension even in the most rudimentary manner. Then what are we left with as intelligent consumers?
Hold the Dark (2018)
★ / ★★★★
The picture begins with a curious mystery involving a boy (Beckam Crawford) being taken by wolves. At least this is what his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), claims to have happened. This is the third child that had been abducted in their Northern Alaska village. She is so desperate and so afraid that her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier currently overseas, would come home without any facts to offer him that she requests the help of Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a man with extensive experience of tracking down wolves.
Although based on the novel by William Giraldi, screenwriter Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier fail to translate the story from page to screen in a way that is entertaining or enlightening. Mildly curious at times because the mythos of the village, the people who live there, and the animals within the vicinity are so alive, it is such a disappointment then that the majority of the film is a soporific experience, moving slower than molasses for no reason other than to test the patience. Perhaps the intention is to drench the audience in atmosphere and mood, but it is ineffective because it does not give us reason to remain emotionally invested. A slow pacing does not generate interest out of thin air.
Halfway through the film, I caught myself feeling appalled that it is directed by Saulnier, a filmmaker no stranger in establishing a calculated pace and then breaking it by sudden bouts of violence (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”). While the approach is present here, unlike his previous work, the feeling behind the strategy is lifeless. It is like someone else attempting to make a poor imitation of Saulnier. I wondered if he has gotten tired of his usual tricks.
It is like clockwork. For instance, prior to the explosive violence, we are asked to endure the characters speak to one another in either monotone or whispers. It is a requirement that they look miserable or sad. Notice there is no reason for them to speak in this manner. Most of the time it comes across as a performance rather than a genuine moment in time of simply being. As a result, we grow detached from the characters being put onto the canvas. A scene or two after such conversations, somebody shoots another with a gun point-blank, or someone is stabbed, others are shot with an arrow. Another employs an assault rifle to mow down local police. I found the charade to be painfully predictable.
“Hold the Dark” is most frustrating because it is an amalgamation of ideas that, at first glance, do not or should not fit together: animals are behaving strangely, there is talk about being possessed by demons when masks are worn, American Indians reference their folklores to try to explain or hint to an outsider what is possibly going on, and the community tending to have its own unspoken rules. It is the writer and director’s job to put these pieces together in a way that is presentable and welcoming—especially for viewers who many not be interested initially with these occurrences.
The failure of the film, I think, can be attributed to the filmmakers’ lack of understanding of the source material. Because if they did thoroughly understand, joy and excitement could be felt even from the most depressing or bleakest story. The viewers would have a complete understanding of themes, character motivations, and the reason why this story is special to this Alaskan village. Instead, the work is opaque for the sake of being opaque.
It Comes at Night (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Viewers not experienced with the kind of horror that “It Comes at Night” offers are likely to paint the picture as an exercise in pointlessness. There is no jump scare, no last-minute “I should have seen it coming!” twist, and certainly no convenient explanation about a mysterious disease that has infected the world’s population. Instead, the focus is on a family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living in isolation in the woods and their decision to help another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner) during their time of need.
The type of horror it offers is of a psychological breed. The approach is interesting in that in order to amplify tension, the tone is consistently flat, supported by pervasive grays and dark colors, how shadows remain just so in order to for us wonder what’s hidden in a particular corner of a room or whether the person confessing is telling the entire truth. Through its calculated slow pacing, the audience is given plenty of time and opportunity to doubt nearly everything, including whether our protagonists really are the protagonists.
While part of the point of the story is facing doubt and mistrust during a time of survival, the execution of an otherwise initially fascinating material is far from exciting. About halfway through, I found myself checking to see whether the film is nearly over because I felt as though the screenplay was struggling to maintain its level of intrigue. For instance, as someone who had lived in a household of two families, I felt the material had missed the opportunity to explore complex dynamics, the challenges of having to compromise to the point where one’s lifestyle, or at least an aspect of it, is altered until breaking point.
I admired its decision to have a bleak ending because it is loyal to the universe it has created. However, its attempt to deliver the final irony lacks a certain energy or sense of urgency. Thus, I found it largely unsatisfactory, a missed opportunity to remind the people watching why this particular story is worth telling. Viewers who have struggled to keep their eyes open throughout are likely to miss the punchline because it is so subtle, it is less of a punch than it is a delicate nudge.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, “It Comes at Night” is a slow burn atmospheric horror that frustrates because it fails to capitalize upon its brimming potential. Those looking for entertainment are strongly advised to look elsewhere.