Under the Silver Lake – an Enthralling Enigma
“We crave mystery because there's none left.”
I finally watched David Robert Mitchell’s third movie, Under the Silver Lake. I’m not even sure if it got a theatrical release here in Sweden, which isn’t that surprising. Fraught by a troublesome release – in which it was first released in France and Belgium in August 2018, but not until April 2019 in the US (source). I had had my eyes on the movie for some time, but it wasn’t until Bret Easton Ellis and some critics I like said that it was one of their top films of 2019 that I got around to see it.
While I haven’t seen David Robert Mitchell’s first movie, The Myth of the American Sleepover, I did see It Follows – a breakout horror hit which garnered a lot of praise and put Mitchell on the map. I really wanted to like it, but it never really scared me and left me feeling unfazed by the end. A well-made movie, no doubt, but overhyped.
Under the Silver Lake, then, is a movie that could only have been made by a director who had achieved the indie success that It Follows did. Here’s a passion project where the director has free reign to do whatever the hell he pleases, and boy does DRM do just that.
Under the Silver Lake is hard to describe, since it encompasses so many definitions, yet it’s just as happy to break them. It’s sexy, mysterious, enigmatic, hazy, funny, befuddling and beautiful. It’s been described as a Donnie Darko for the 21st century, and it’s an apt description (not least since the two movies share an affinity for REM. One of the movie’s highlights is a joyful dance sequence to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”).
What starts off as a mystery to find a missing girl – one of many nods to Hitchcock (Rear Window and a Vertigo-inspired car tailing) – escalates into a surreal unearthing of Los Angeles’ upper echelon that skirts the fine line between conspiracy thriller and wacky stoner comedy.
Set in Los Angeles, it features many of the city’s beautiful vistas and more classic movie references than you can count. It’s a transportive movie, one that makes you feel an oppressive atmosphere lurking in the LA darkness, akin to Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. It’s certainly Pynchon-esque, and as Bret Easton Ellis himself described in his podcast, it’s more Philip K. Dick than Philip Marlowe.
The heat of the LA night is palpable, and the feverish mind of Andrew Garfield’ character Sam permeates everything. A dog killer is on the loose. The city’s prime benefactor goes missing. There might be a fantastical creature called The Owl’s Kiss prowling about. Long story short: the mysteries are abounding. This is the kind of movie that makes you take a deep dive on Reddit to soak up all the information uncovered by obsessive viewers. I know I will.
Andrew Garfield is at the top of his game here, in what might be his best performance since Martin Scorsese’s Silence. His portrayal of Sam is thoroughly convincing. Sam is a slacker with a shy demeanor and a love for alternative rock. Despite Sam’s aloof ways, Garfield manages to infuse him with some heart. However, he’s far from a hard-boiled detective. Most of the mysteries seem to be in his head, no doubt exacerbated by the paranoia that he feels. It’s his incessant search for the truth (whatever that is) and need for mysteries that take him all the way down the LA rabbit hole.
Because of the LA setting and the surreal atmosphere, there are evident parallels to the works of David Lynch. The movie that comes to mind is definitely Mullholland Drive, also replete with film stars, LA glamour, mysteries and monsters. The obvious connection is actor Patrick Fisher, who in that movie played a man haunted by a nightmare, (that hobo woman still scares the crap out of me) and here he’s a comic book creator obsessed with dark tales.
Though it’s definitely a neo-noir, DRM plays off classic noir tropes like the femme fatale. However, DRM is too aware of genre conventions to resort to clichés. Sam is smitten by the elusive Sarah, wonderfully played by Riley Keough. In fact, there are lots of enigmatic and beautiful women in the movie, and it’s Sam’s slight perversion that gets him into many of his predicaments. Some female characters could do with more screen time to flesh them out, but it’s a movie with Sam’s point of view, and we’re confined to his state of mind.
For more on the movie’s handling of women, I recommend this review by Kristy Puchko at Riot Material, where she concludes that “[Sam’s] treatment of women as tools to satisfy his desires is ultimately regarded as loathsome and pathetic, its ugliness exposed.” Though the movie doesn’t pass judgment, his leering comes off as pitiful.
Ultimately, Under the Silver Lake isn’t all that concerned with answering the questions peppered throughout. If anything, you’re left with more questions than before. Finding the answer to those questions are up to the viewer. Instead, I read it as one man’s search for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of mysteries.
Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it could’ve been shorter, but it’s a transporting experience that you want to revisit, no matter how zany it gets. Take the plunge and do a deep dive into the silver lake. It’s one of this year’s most unique movies.