David Robert Mitchell
Grace Van Patten
2 Hrs., 19 Mins.
Under the Silver Lake / Burning May 21, 2019
2 Hrs., 28 Mins.
fruitless. He unhappily works odd jobs part time; in the off hours, he works on a novel. You can tell, however, that even if he in some way is indulging in his interests, he’s profoundly unsatisfied, and lonely, too.
We first meet Jong-su and another one of the film’s three main characters when he’s doing one of the odd jobs. While transporting a load of items for an unspecified company to a supermarket in Paju, he bumps into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old classmate. He doesn’t recognize her at first, and that’s because, according to Hae-mi, she got extensive plastic surgery around the time they graduated. “I’m attractive now,” she announces with a smile.
The reunion continues. Jong-su and Hae-mi go out for dinner, reveal things about themselves; the meal culminates in Hae-mi, apparently having no one in her life she can trust, asking Jong-su if he would babysit her cat. She’s going to Africa soon for vacation and needs some help. Jong-su agrees. Just before she leaves a few days later, they have sex in her apartment. It’s clear, as Jong-su waffles between Hae-mi’s flat and the farm of his father, who’s caught up in some legal trouble, that he hopes they can begin dating when she returns.
When Hae-mi comes back, though, she brings more than a suitcase. Also in tow is Ben (Steven Yeun), a young millionaire whom she met at the airport and bonded with. It’s plain that we’re not to trust Hae-mi’s unannounced companion. When the trio goes out for lunch, Ben only speaks of his work in vague terms, and doesn’t disclose anything about himself (though he at one point does tell his listening-mates that he’s never cried, and isn’t exactly sure what it’s like to experience certain emotions). The title of the movie, we come to understand, stems in part from a mid-movie reveal that, for fun, Ben likes to set greenhouses on fire, watching giddily until they’re reduced to embers.
It’s difficult to speak of Burning in too much detail; part of the movie’s power as a psychological drama comes from a late-in-the-film disappearance whose true nature is never really revealed. But what nonetheless moves and rattles me about the film, without giving too much away, is how specific its anxieties feel. There’s the general kind, of course, rooted in the suspicion that Ben might be dangerous, particularly posing a threat to Hae-mi. But elsewhere does the agitation, to me, feel tipped toward millennials. Lee briefly puts a spotlight on President Donald Trump spewing nonetheless worrying nonsense on television; a newscast tells us that unemployment — specifically the unemployment of young people — is increasing. Jong-su’s inability to find work as a writer speaks to the instability of journalism, especially now; the mere presence of Ben, aside from simply being untrustworthy, inflames the generation-specific phenomenon of self-comparison (he’s a few years older than the characters, but still: how is he successful and not me?, Jong-su seems to be asking himself).
There are also constant allusions to the notion of disappearing or never existing — something that reminded me of the old-fogeyish but I think still partially true axiom that, during the social-media age, we sometimes feel as though something didn’t really happen unless it was recorded, disseminated, and then celebrated to a gratifying degree. I didn’t like the ending of Burning, which is uncharacteristically explosive and tarnishes the overwhelming, but intoxicating, elusiveness of everything coming before it. But we nevertheless finish Burning deeply unsettled, desperately trying to fill in the blanks Lee so conspicuously leaves unmarked. In Under the Silver Lake, enigma is a double-edged sword; in Burning, it’s a virtue.
Under the Silver Lake: B-
he nice thing about Burning (2018), the new film from the South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, is that, while it might be slow-moving like Under the Silver Lake, we’re always certain that every step has a purpose. The movie stars Yoo Ah-in, masterfully awkward, as Jong-su, a recent college graduate. He’s struggling. He majored in creative writing; as is often the case for inexperienced young writers, the job search has proven
protagonist has actually become wrapped up in a mystery or conspiracy or if he plain and simply has a few screws loose in him. With Under the Silver Lake, is it reality or an extended illusion that we’re experiencing? Or have we been dropped into the center of a maze from which there appears to be no escape?
The nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long movie, which is the writer-director-producer David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the excellent It Follows (2015), is designed to wander. We can tell not just because the brain of its hero is like a plate of spaghetti that’s been sitting on a countertop for a couple of days but also because the storyline, ever-stretchy, moves in a myriad of directions, some gratuitous, some essential. As noted by critics who have taken to the film’s puzzle-like structure, it's as if Mitchell were seeking to make a feeling of mystery omniscient and elevate the point of view of a goofy, distrait protagonist.
But there’s an expiration date to the movie’s constant dawdling. We come to pine for the finale toward the feature’s middle, when the odd-bird detours feel less thrillingly aimless and more tediously so. Such a takeaway makes it unsurprising that the film premiered to polarized reception at Cannes last year. (Something that freaked out its distributor, A24, so much that it delayed the movie’s release over and over again, finally giving it a VOD release earlier this spring.) There’s a fence separating a ramble and a canny speech; Under the Silver Lake straddles it.
The movie stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, a shaggy-haired idler living in Los Angeles. When we first meet Sam, who’s something of a conspiracy theorist, he’s reached the pinnacle of his apathy. He doesn’t have a job — and doesn’t seem all that interested in getting one — is about to be kicked out of his pretty-nice Rear Window (1954)-style apartment, and has grown so lax about his general hygiene that it comes to be a trademark for characters a foot or so away from him to ask what that smell is. (It’s just all the skunks in the area, he says; in his defense, we do see one at some point.) He doesn’t do a whole lot of anything besides watch classic-era Hollywood movies, make faux-deep talk with a scraggly, unnamed bartender friend (Topher Grace), talk with his mom on the phone, scrub old pop-culture artifacts for subliminal messaging, and spy on his neighbors.
His spying proves itself good for something — it’s what punches the narrative gas. Early one afternoon, he spots a blonde woman in a white bikini clutching a white dog at the pool, which sits below his balcony. She is, as he’ll learn, a new neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough). Soon they meet, flirt a little, share a kiss; Sarah invites him, before departing, to come over tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, though, Sarah and her roommates are nowhere to be found, like everything in their apartment had been sucked up by a radiated Dyson. An average Joe in a different, less curious movie might let bygones be bygones, relegating Sarah to a figure in a memory he wishes were longer. But Sam, with nothing else to do, takes it upon himself to investigate her vanishing, which he’s convinced is somehow connected to the disappearance of an area billionaire named Jefferson Severence (Chris Gann).
An unusually high number of films noir are set in L.A., and the reason by my logic is related to geography rather than criminal activity. The city is a maze — a labyrinth also distinguished for its multitudinous industries and wide assortment of colorful characters. It’s only natural, then, that something akin to a detective movie, with its depended-on assembly of untrustworthy leads and hush-hush locales, be set there. You can wind up anywhere, talking to anyone,
and still have it come to be rendered a key part of the narrative.
Under the Silver Lake foundationally has all the characteristics of an L.A. noir. But it feels more like a rabble than an unquestionable addition to the subgenre, something that could be blamed on the fact that the main character’s the sort of bum you almost never see at the forefront of a movie of its kind or on the reality that the feature’s too much a jumble to be considered convoluted in a slinky The Big Sleep (1939) sort of way.
For a while, you appreciate Mitchell’s anything-goes storytelling and his stylish, pop-culture-referencing directing. But there comes a moment where you have little faith that the movie is going anywhere substantial or really understandable. There is, fortunately, a conclusion that does, even if I didn’t in any way believe it, make some sense. Turns out that Sam actually did uncover a conspiracy and didn’t dream the whole thing up (or so it appears). But the twists and turns are more in abundance than meaty character development or a central “point” that might evoke a connection, emotionally or psychologically, to the narrative or the characters involved in the mania. The very-intentional caprice loses its oddball charm after the first stretch.
The movie’s treatment of women is askew, too. They’re usually half-undressed or entirely undressed; they are made to serve no purpose besides help Sam move along in his quest, whether that means they have sex with him, lead him to someone else who can give him vital information, or get killed. Defenders of the movie have argued that this is just in sync with how Sam, who objectifies women unceremoniously, sees the world on a gendered level. But it isn’t obvious if Mitchell, in contrast to how you can tell that the film’s crypticness is meant to be there, thinks this, too. The way women are portrayed in the movie is in line with how they’re characterized in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, or Brian De Palma, whose styles all evidently imbue Michell’s own. Perhaps lovingly, but more so in such a way that’s also objectifying, leering — like women are meant to be more part of the atmosphere than much else. “They’re the wallpaper of the film, set dressing and Greek chorus, and pretty soon the commentary on how Hollywood uses women as decoration outweighs the fact that Mitchell’s just repeating the cycle — albeit with better-than-average outfits,” Vulture’s Emily Yoshida noted in her review.
Subversive film noir of Under the Silver Lake’s kind has been done before, and well. Of course there’s Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), which, despite being a Raymond Chandler adaptation, felt more analogous to a gnarled slacker movie than the definitive detective fare its source material was. To invoke literature, there was Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985), which had a similar is-the-protagonist-onto-something-or-is-he-crazy conceit; of late there’s been Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015), which was so mercurial and marijuana-scented that it rang more like an ambitious satirical comedy than the usual. Under the Silver Lake, in pockets, comes close to reaching the heights of the highs of these pieces; it especially finds a sweet spot in Garfield, who embodies Sam’s goallessness without being grating about it. He’s a just-right loser turned quasi-hero who’s still a loser by the end. But we don’t have as much of a grasp on what exactly Mitchell is trying to achieve here, whereas the latter-mentioned works rang with such assurance that we never thought to question the material.
f Under the Silver Lake (2019) were a person, it’d either be a bearded neurotic wearing a tined tin-foil hat or perhaps one of the talking heads in the over-analytical Room 237 (2012) documentary. On the surface it seems like a detective movie where an average Joe with coincidence on his side stands in for a professional investigator. But look a little closer and it instead reads more like one of those character studies where you can’t tell if the