Review: Under the Silver Lake

Andrew Garfield in “Under the Silver Lake.”

Dir. David Robert Mitchell. 140 minutes.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disheveled underachiever whose idea of a good time is staring at sunbathing women from his apartment balcony. When Sam’s neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) mysteriously disappears, Sam sets about looking for her. But this isn’t a mystery solved with fingerprints and DNA. Sam searches for Sarah by combining cryptograms found on bathroom walls with backmasked song lyrics, phrases from comics books and other seemingly unrelated snippets of information.

There’s an innate human tendency to see patterns in nature’s chaos: canals on Mars or Christ’s face on a piece of toast. The more information we consume, the easier it is to build entire worldviews on these false connections. “Under the Silver Lake” is a conspiracist fantasy, forever teasing the audience by granting great and sinister weight to things that would ordinarily seem trivial. The screen is crowded with little details — “missing” posters, snippets of news coverage, ads for fast food — that could contain some hidden meaning, as well as actual ciphers and other visual puzzles. An hour in, you’ll find yourself constructing your own improbable theories about what’s really going on.

This is a romance movie that opens with the hero beating up two 8-year-olds. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, and it’s easy to understand who so many critics have found it merely annoying. But Andrew Garfield’s charming and grounded performance gives the audience something to cling to as the story grows increasingly weird and cryptic.