It Follows: Water and David Robert Mitchell
by Sean M. Sanford
The ambiance of It Follows is apt to snag one’s attention right off, wherein no detail seems without purpose. David Robert Mitchell, has been apt to say that translating his own symbolism would be an injustice to the theories of his viewers. This felt like an invite to enjoy with a renewed eye. And though there is no shortage of mannerisms that plead for interpretation, I noticed that water has a strong presence in the film. I thought about some of the characters’ circumstantial relationships to water, then took a gander into Mitchell’s life to see if I could swim across any parallels.
Water: It’s Deep
It Follows harbors a complex relationship with water. For one, it is depicted as a safeguard that is rarely more than a mirage. Also, a water-logged environment is in play in some of the most transitional scenes, and usually the gateway to a panic attack-worthy howdy-do. Nonetheless water baits more than one character for solace. Starting with Annie, who we meet in the movie’s opening sequence. The young woman flees, and looks to be in the throes of a hopeful, albeit doubtful salvation upon the sands of a beach. However, the lake’s waters prove to be little more than ambiance for a Hellacious round of Pilates.
We later see Jay and her date Hugh (nee, Jeff) at a beach that could arguably be the same beach where we last saw Annie. Therein begins a courtship that will introduce Jay to her sexually-induced offshoot. Here the lake could be seen to represent a simultaneous relief for Hugh/Jeff, as well as a stamp of horror for Jay. Sometimes there’s a fine line.
A Pool of Thought
Jay, the film’s main character, is swimming throughout her introductory scene. Maxing out in her above-ground pool, she enjoys a kind of meditation. It appears that she is at extraordinary peace in the pool.
As she’s making way to get in, we see someone knocking persistently at her door. While the shot pans over, the knocking continues, sounding less like a visitor than a constant rhythm. The caller ends up being Paul, someone who is shown throughout the film affording her furtive glances. Jay’s sister then appears and serves up a breath of foreshadowing: she invites Jay to hang out with the crew that evening, Paul included. Jay tells her that she’s got a date. This is a symbolic crossroads, italicizing Jay’s agenda in choosing her date (Hugh/Jeff) over Paul; who would come specifically into play later in ridding her of the very entity she had acquired in her choosing of Hugh/Jeff. Also, the demeanor of the pool scene, with its omnipotent suspense, suggests that Jay is at peace here.
We can see her neighbors creeping around, watching through the bushes. The way she looks at them, with a sort of casual interest, before telling them that she can see them, shows her to have a sense of invincibility in her pool.
Then, as she’s seen getting ready for her date, the only two photos on her mirror are one that is presumably of her as a child with her father (who is otherwise absent from her life), and one of her swimming in the pool, showing it to be on a small list of what she’s down to be reminded of whenever she looks at herself.
Later, as Jay is exploring the attrition to her house caused by her pursuer, she discovers that the same swimming pool is destroyed, water drained over her yard. This is an example of the film using water as a threshold, as she looks at it the way most people do when they know shit’s about to reach forlorn dimensions. She appears to realize that any wisps of her previous life, like the pool, have been emptied.
Another major watery setting is the vacation house where Jay’s neighbor Greg brings her to flee the entity. The lakefront retreat is a kind of Purgatory. While it’s beautiful and peaceful, Jay and her crew (Paul included), all wear an underlying suspense. It feels like a group of people who are in a version of Paradise that has a bloody and undefined expiration date.
Later on, in a renewed rendition of her horror, Jay returns to the lake. The scene ends with her getting ready to swim out into the water, to possibly relieve herself of the follower. Since her hunter remains when we see her next, it’s clear that she either didn’t go through with it, or the entity has been re-routed once again after having its way with the boatmen. Either way the water feels like the setting of a desperation that was never quelled.
Swimming for Safety
The film’s climactic confrontation goes down at an indoor swimming pool in Detroit. It separates the suburbs from the urban landscape aesthetically, as though they have traversed to a darkened environment. We hear Yara make a reference to the urban areas in Detroit, as her parents told her to never go south of 8 Mile, where the suburbs end and the city begins; something she says to have never understood until she got older. This illustrates a border to the storyline, the characters all roaming in concert with Jay and her woes into a climactic locale. The pool, and the water therein, appears like an oasis: it’s a surreally kempt body of water, surrounded by the drab abandon through which they had fled. It is here that we see Jay’s curse assume the form of what looks to be her father, who she finally faces, using water as her tool to both lure and attempt to destroy.
Some Subtle Drizzle
There are other, more subtle uses of water in the film as well. When Paul is sitting up on demon-watch for Jay, she joins him and he’s watching one of the Godzilla movies. The scene that’s playing as she approaches shows a monstrous rumble in the ocean and a wavy chaos, not unlike her fight later in the swimming pool. Then when she sits down next to him, there is a large painting above their heads of an ocean wave, crashing. When the entity appears later, it has assumed the image of a woman, she has liquid dripping down her front side and looks like she just got out of a body of water (or she may have whizzed herself. Either way, discomfort abounds). When Kelly and Paul come up to check on her, Jay says twice, “I need water!”
When Jay and Paul are commencing the ultimate act of unloading Jay’s woes by subjecting them to Paul, it is raining hard outside, and water is seen spattering down the window above them.
The Man. The Messenger
Gleaning a message begins with understanding the messenger –also, since re-surfacing my own past emotions is rarely a joy, I focused on what it all could mean to David Robert Mitchell himself. I explored any relationship he may have had with bodies of water, and was met with some glinting attributes.
Mitchell was born in the burbs outside of Detroit, the same general setting as It Follows. He moved to Florida to go to film school. Following a desire to bring his art to cinematic realms, this would have been one of the major transitions in the young filmmaker’s life. Yet Florida proved to be a stand-in rapture, because after finishing film school he headed straight toward the Holly-est of Woods; Los Angeles to be exact: America’s left-hand aquatic wander. Not to mention the farthest continental reach from his hometown. It is there that he would eventually trail his dreams, and give birth to It Follows. He’s said to have based his villainous entity on a recurring nightmare he had as a child.
Myself being the childhood recipient of night terrors, I have reason to suspect that such afflictions can be products of an outside vibe in a person’s life. (My night terrors came whenever I had a fever during a full moon. And also any other moon.) Or maybe it was his childhood home. Maybe Mitchell had left his house, or his entire hometown, to escape whatever was plaguing him, as his nightmares seem to have ended when he reached adulthood. Whatever it was he was leaving, he went to both ends of the country, each limited only by a seemingly endless ocean.
Water is no stranger to Mitchell in his follow-up work as well. He uses it as an environmental and symbolic homage in his 2018 film, Under the Silver Lake, where a swimming pool is a foundational setting for the main character’s introduction to the entire plot of the movie. I feel it’s not to be dismissed that the pool scene in that movie mirrors the final known footage of Marilyn Monroe from her scenes in the never-to-be-released movie Something’s Gotta Give.
There are other water-themed transitions in that movie as well. Like an issue of Playboy that Sam, the main character, says was the first issue he ever jacked off to after stealing it from his dad. The cover is of a woman underwater, upside down. That photo is paralleled in real time later, beneath a reservoir, and during an incident that changes the narrative dramatically.
It’s a Wash
Nothing about David Robert Mitchell’s films feels unintentional, which is one of the reasons I appreciate him as much as I do. Shit, he’s even said that he pieced together a trove of clues for a hidden message in Under the Silver Lake for anyone savvy and willing enough to decipher them. Which reflects the theme of that movie itself. He allows us to deconstruct the meaning and symbols in his films without revealing his true intentions behind them, so as not to rob any theorists of their carefully articulated concepts. And for this, I thank him. Because otherwise, well, it reminds me of most journeys: what’s the fun in discovering a new route if you already saw it on some satellite map on your phone?
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