Fewer than ten seconds pass in Under the Silver Lake before its first coded message appears. In the form of stylized drawings of a unicorn, a tiger, a snake, and a lion, all preceding the opening shot and at first seem inexplicable, even in hindsight, until you realize that the first letter of each animal’s name corresponds to the first letter of each word in the film’s title. Numerous additional clues and hints follow, visible in the background of various shots. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a gleeful unemployed goofball named Sam (Andrew Garfield) runs all over Los Angeles investigating odd mysteries of his own, eventually stumbling onto a series of vaguely related conspiracies so resoundingly insane, and at times stupid, that they make the very notion of searching for hidden meaning — whether in pop culture or the day’s headlines — seem inane. Enabling and mocking paranoid obsession — and really puzzle movies in general — at the same time might sound incoherent. In this hilariously demented spin on L.A. noir, it’s simply honest.
It all starts with Sam, shiftless and broke and not especially likeable either, somehow snags the attention of his new bombshell neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough). She then disappears overnight sending the already highly suggestible Sam into a roundabout, obsessive amateur investigation involving subliminal messages, hidden codes, a missing movie producer, underground tunnels, a string of dog killings, and a fabled, moth-masked assassin. So, yes, its pretty clear that writer-director David Robert Mitchell is swinging for the fences for his third feature. The massive leap of ambition is very admirable, but can also be a tricky gamble. Even as it takes the form of blunt homage to the loopy Los Angeles noirs ranging from The Long Goodbye to Mulholland Drive, it remains within the confines of Mitchell’s own distinctive style, which echoes familiar genres like an enchanting, dreamy reflection of the real thing. As seen in his two previous films, The Myth of the American Sleepover displays the John Hughes pastiche and It Follows, the allegorical sexual horror films. Both of which display Mitchell’s ability to fuse elegant pastiche with alluring dramas about young people coming to grips with their own egocentric ways.
Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake
As Under the Silver Lake transforms its genre into its own unique context, it also tackles a staple when it comes to the shaggy-dog detective story, the male gaze. From a genre that practically personifies it, this film as well becomes conspicuously about that, deconstructing privilege more than linger in its confines. After all, this is a story about a philandering white man whose obsession with his sultry neighbor sends him on a bizarre subterranean adventure because he probably has nothing better to do. Sam’s epiphanies about his privileged circumstances matter more than any of the breadcrumbs he chases through a loopy plot that takes it time to wander cross its two hour and twenty minute runtime. Overall, its a bizarre and outrageous drama that stays grounded in the consistency of Garfield’s astonishment each step and turn of the way.
“What do you do?” someone finally asks Sam, over an hour into the movie. “Nothing,” he replies, shrugging. That’s not quite accurate — Sam can be quite diligent when it comes to nonsense — but it’s significant that he not only has no job but appears to have no intention of looking for one, even though his car gets repossessed mid-film and he’s been served an eviction notice by his landlord. He instead still keeps his full focus on Sarah’s disappearance. Which at first doesn’t seem that suspicious, besides a strange symbol left on the wall in her bedroom. Nonetheless, Sam ends up following some of her friends, sees them receive what appears to be a numeric message on a football scoreboard, and then starts seeing signs everywhere. From a message hidden in the lyrics of a hit song to a James Dean bust in Griffith Park. Eventually, Sam learns the truth — not just about Sarah, but about the entire fabric of modern society and his miserably inconsequential place within it.
Riley Keough in Under the Silver Lake
You might be asking yourself, “wait I thought this was about white male privilege?”, the thing is, it still is. Under the Silver Lake is a film with insurmountable layers. One can look at it as a deconstruction of the male gaze in classic noirs, you can look at it as a satire of puzzle movies, while another can look at it simply as a straightforward puzzle movie itself. Or it can be about a loathing mans inconsequential place in the world, and all of them track pretty well. Yet as multiple of those viewpoints may sound grim, Mitchell leavens the darkness with great amounts of silliness. Formally, Under the Silver Lake is unmistakably Lynchian, owing a debt to the previously mentioned Mulholland Drive — there’s even a small key role here for Patrick Fischler. Yet the sense of foreboding here seemingly gets repeatedly undermined by the sheer absurdity of what Sam discovers. Crucially, it’s also made clear that Sam was previously prone to seeking out improbable patterns in everyday life well before Sarah vanished, having spent months logging every eye movement that Vanna White has made on Wheel Of Fortune. He’s convinced that there must be meaning there, and while Under the Silver Lake drowns him from start to finish, it’s also achingly sincere about the innate humane desire to believe that there’s some secret code that will reveal the key to happiness, or at least give some basic understanding of what the hell is going on in the world. What begins as a familiar amateur-detective story transforms into a futile quest for transcendence, with Mitchell delivering an empathetic scold, respecting the yearning even as he relentlessly ridicules the yearner.
As Under the Silver Lake progresses its confidence only grows, reaching a point in the third act that displays Mitchell’s reverence for fever dream sequences beautifully. As we are delivered a sequence of outrageous inspiration involving a withered pianist (Jeremy Bonn) taking credit for every popular song in history. But this film also fashions itself in a classic Hollywood aesthetic, from the soaring orchestral score by Disasterpeace to the framing from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, as they both often evoke aesthetics of the ’50s and early ’60s. With some of Gioulakis’ extreme wide shots even displaying backgrounds made to look like old painted soundstage backdrops in the vein of the golden age of Hollywood. But most of all this film owes a lot to Andrew Garfield’s performance. With it’s ramshackle beauty practically becoming the incarnation of haplessness, right down to the dorky way that the walks and runs throughout the film. His paranoia, curiosity and overall determination become extremely affecting, absorbing you along for the journey. Taking you through a zany L.A. fever dream that slowly becomes a bittersweet ode to wanting answers from an indifferent world overwhelmed by superficial distractions. The journey itself is a detective yarn that perfectly displays its demented world and captures the paranoid age we live in today.