Film Review – Under the Silver Lake
Under the Silver Lake
Under the vast wasteland of Video On Demand exists Under the Silver Lake (2018), one of the most bizarre, mysterious, and mesmerizing films of recent years. It’s a puzzle contained within a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, and yet at no one point through its two-and-a-half-hour runtime was I not completely captured by what I was witnessing. The story behind its rollout is an understandable one, where A24 (the studio behind the likes of Lady Bird, Hereditary, and The Witch) continued to push back the release date until it was finally dumped into VOD in April of this year, because this is a movie that is not easy to sell. It may be hard to categorize but it’s impossible to forget. This is destined to become a cult classic.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has now become a filmmaker of serious consideration. His previous outing, It Follows (2014), was an impressive horror story that also had something meaningful to say. With Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell swings for the fences, spinning a noir tale while also examining the darker side of Los Angeles, run by the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry. This is not unfamiliar ground, and the surreal, almost abstract nature of Mitchell’s narrative will no doubt draw comparisons to David Lynch’s own unique ode to the city, Mulholland Drive (2001). The connection is apt, given how both feel like we’re seeing a hallucination unfolding before our very eyes. But Mitchell does a superb job of making his take a creature all its own.
To describe the plot is almost futile because it twists and turns in so many different directions, making tangents that seem to go nowhere, and then doubling back in a circular fashion. On the surface, it’s about a lonely outcast named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who finds himself falling deeper into a plot he barely has a handle on. He meets Sarah (Riley Keough) a lovely woman who lives in a neighboring apartment, and the two share a flirtatious evening together. But when Sam returns the next day, he finds that she has vanished into thin air, all of her furniture missing, with only a strange symbol as a clue.
Sam takes it upon himself to figure out where Sarah has gone, and thus gets dropped into an odyssey in which he meets peculiar characters. His investigation leads him to people such as a “hobo king,” a band named “Jesus and the Brides of Dracula,” and a songwriter that has apparently written the greatest pop songs ever made. Sam’s growing paranoia causes him to decipher hidden messages in music lyrics and magazines, frequent night clubs filled with trendy people, and discover hidden passageways and secure bunkers deep below the city. What does it all mean? Are Sam’s efforts leading up to something significant, or is it all the working of a man caught up in his own hubris?
Not since Enemy (2013) has a film perplexed me in a such a strong, satisfying way. This is not a film that will appeal to general audiences. The plot is a confounding and frustrating, presenting a ton of questions and not providing many answers. It’s a mess of episodes that don’t appear to connect at first glance. At one point, Sam heads to Griffith Observatory to rub the head of James Dean’s statue, and a few scenes later is skinny dipping with a beautiful woman only to be shot at by an invisible sniper. And let’s not forget about the unseen “Dog Killer,” who has been prowling the L.A. streets hunting down canines with reckless abandon.
Mitchell stuffs Silver Lake with an over-abundance of pop culture references, especially when it comes to movies. The way Sam gazes at his neighbors from outside his balcony is an obvious reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Sam’s mother will routinely call him to talk about her love for the silent movie star, Janet Gaynor. Sam has a large poster of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) on his wall. The very nature of the indecipherable plot will call to mind neo-noirs such as Night Moves (1975), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Chinatown (1974). Sam’s name is a call back to the famous fictional private eye, Sam Spade.
But what is all this pointing toward? My best guess is that Mitchell is presenting a specific slice of L.A. life in a clear satirical approach. Here is a place where countless people come every year in hopes of making it big, with more people finding failure than success. Sam appears to have fallen into this grouping. He seems to have no direction in his life: he’s broke, loses his car, and is on the verge of being evicted from his apartment, but makes no effort to fix these issues. There are hints of a past relationship that may have lead Sam toward a downward spiral. It’s only when he searches for Sarah that he finds purpose, but is his purpose justified? Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), Sam has placed himself in the hero position in a story that may not even be asking for one.
The film works because of two major factors: the first is Mitchell’s confident writing and direction, and the other is the performance of Andrew Garfield. Garfield subverts his charm and good boy looks to play Sam as a kind of worn out bum. While Sam may be the protagonist, the narrative also paints him with villainous undertones. His nature is one of anger and bitterness. He brutally beats up a couple of kids vandalizing his car (before it’s towed), he physically tortures a musician to answer his questions, he looks down on the homeless with disgust, and – most egregiously – he looks upon all the women around him with a misogynistic eye. Sam is a character that represents the worst of this culture, where the desire to succeed and gain notoriety is backed by a deeper immorality.
But that’s not to say that Silver Lake is a depressing experience. In fact, it’s the opposite. The pacing moves with a brisk momentum, even slower scenes don’t overstay their welcome. Sam, albeit with plenty of flaws, is also a major goofball. Notice the way he runs, swinging his arms so awkwardly that it makes you wonder if he’s ever done any physical activity his entire life. The narrative clearly knows that he is meant to be a scumbag – an encounter with a skunk causes others to comment on how he stinks, both literally and figuratively. And the central mystery also has time for levity, like in the scene where Sam deciphers a coded message hidden inside of a video game magazine. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography and Disasterpeace’s music depicts the environments with a stylish, dream-like quality. The locations throughout are familiar ones (I’m sure anyone who lives in L.A. can point them all out), but they’re captured in a way that makes them active pieces of the overall puzzle.
A lot of people are going to walk out of Under the Silver Lake and not like it. Some will call it boring, pretentious, and self-indulgent. Others will point out the numerous naked women as another example of the creepy “male gaze.” And many will simply disregard it as meaningless nonsense. And yet, even after multiple viewings, I have not stopped thinking about this movie. It clearly has big ideas and takes an ambitious approach in presenting them. Mitchell’s grasp of the material never feels like he was simply throwing stuff up against a wall and seeing what will stick. Where local movie theaters trudge out mainstream products that are simply copycats of one another, it’s refreshing to find something that continually keeps you guessing, never settling for the easy way out. It was a relief to watch this and not have a single clue where it was going.