Under The Silver Lake (2019)
“Enabling and mocking paranoid obsession at the same time might sound incoherent. In this hilariously demented spin on L.A. noir, it’s simply honest.” - Mike D’Angelo
“It’s a darker, skewed look at the collective consciousness of a city defined by capitalist, misogynistic, patriarchal, superficial values that have led people astray.” - Andrew Garfield
I found it to be fitting to include snippets of reviews for a movie that contains snippets of other ideas from some of my very favorite movies. Under The Silver Lake is an amalgam - a subreddit paranoia fever dream brought to life by one of my favorite filmmakers working today. What’s funny is that I could write this review in a ramshackle manner to reflect the precise messiness of the film. An example would be how I almost liken David Robert Mitchell to Richard Kelly. All proper names. Both directors have made wildly ambitious films that I have loved and/or have been loathed or highly criticized by many others. Also, part of me wanted to go full-blown psychological analysis on the lead character, Sam, that Andrew Garfield plays here.
He’s alone, hyper-sexual and quite possibly, developing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s a bit of a depressed narcissist too. “Ever think you’ve fucked up so much that you’re living the wrong life, like a bad version of the life you’re supposed to have?” But that’s not really what I think Mitchell is interested in, though this might be Garfield’s bravest performance to date because he is kind of repulsive. He is an asshole that beats up people that don’t deserve the kind of punishment they receive. In the end, the story here doesn’t always add up, neither does the mystery. That might be the point. It could just be a misshapen mashup full of strange scenes surrounding characters like “The Homeless King.” So I’ll likely not focus on what it all means, more on just my own hypotheses. I’ll do my best. Bear with me. I can write like I have ADHD, which I probably do.
Sam is an unemployed pop culture obsessive that is clearly struggling with his sexist, misogynistic behavior to the point where watching him makes the viewer feel disgusted. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, David Robert Mitchell is examining the male gaze rather than celebrating it. Several others have avidly disagreed, finding the film to be an unsatisfying mess that treats all women horribly throughout. I’m not going to make the argument that, well, since we are spending time with a sexist prick, that the film itself should be sexist. I just think that Sam is wrestling with his limited perspective. Rather, and again, I’m being cautiously optimistic, that Mitchell is deconstructing white male privilege along with pure disconnected boredom.
Sam is filling a void in his life with voyeuristic tendencies and far-fetched conspiracy theories that may or may not be realized. He has a fuck buddy that isn’t really a satisfying relationship so he keeps trying to meet other women. But I think he also feels guilty for being the prick that he is. Take for example one of the more human scenes in the film, involving Topher Grace. It’s a bit of a subversion of DePalma where two guys use a drone to spy on a woman, only to discover that the woman has experienced some kind of trauma. There is more to a person than reducing them to something they see on the surface or on a computer screen. The film is saying, look beyond the surface. But it’s also strangely poking fun of those who look too far deep to the point where they lose themselves.
Someone who has lost himself completely is played by character actor Patrick Fischler who we all recognize as the anxious dreamer at Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive. But much like the dreamer in that film, does Sam get his fears and theories validated, ultimately? That’s what I’m wrestling with since there are moments where this film sharply breaks from reality in ways that are darkly comedic and yet full of existential dread. “We crave mystery because it doesn’t exist anymore.” Sam craves the reliability of orgasm and pop culture — he has gone down the white-rabbit hole of believing that “things he owns” and the media are communicating to him directly whether it’s through films, pop songs, video games, magazines and cereal boxes. The question of whether someone has committed suicide or was murdered by some kind of owl creature, also isn’t resolved. It just is. Also, who is shooting at him while swimming in a lake, why do we need to see the bowels of a band leader, what is the owl’s kiss and what gives with the end result of an encounter with a rich, elderly songwriter that lives in a mansion? Moments like that make the Southland Tales comparison apt.
Suffice to say, I know deep down this movie is ridiculously imperfect and full of questions that do not receive anything close to resembling an answer. Right down to the final minutes which though I find unsatisfying, I think they are just another layer or flavor that may not leave you wanting to piece together the puzzle. Trying to solve the puzzle is kind of a waste of time, in a movie that’s asking you to do the same. So it’s very possible that you’ll feel like this movie is a waste of time. But in terms of cinematography and score, this was right up there with It Follows but just in a very different cinematic universe. There are times when I think of this as a reconstruction of Vertigo, right down to the way Sam follows (ahem) someone in their car. Also it kind of views sex as unsexy with a lost soul adrift in a way that’s not unlike Tom Cruise (the ultimate privileged white male) in Eyes Wide Shut.
This story is partially about a skunk-smelly hipster that FIXATES on another woman in an L.A noir-like manner, and to some degree, gets called out on the futility of objectification and obsession. Sex & beauty doesn’t matter, secret passageways don’t matter, pop culture doesn’t matter, what we dance to doesn’t matter, nothing really matters. There is just a tiny little window where we can temporarily feel free, but god damn it’s ridiculously temporary. It might even require an acid-laced cookie but we will still come home to paranoia and rent that has to be paid. We’re just trying to create a Pynchon-esque mystery to fill the hours of a wasted, self-indulgent day. I know it’s not a pleasant sentiment to surmise, but it’s partially the reality this movie lives in. Technology has somewhat allowed us to wallow in the meaninglessness of coding, as does friend Topher Grace conveys at one point. I won’t lie — his sermons reminded me of Tyler Durden. “We’re a generation of men raised on video games, etc.” Again that kind of awareness and pop culture paraphrasing might annoy most viewers but it didn’t for me.
I don’t think Mitchell is condemning the fact that we’re pop culture junkies, just pointing it out among the many masturbatory fantasies and coincidental secret codes found in random magazine issues. If you keep looking, you’ll likely find some form of confirmation bias. My favorite scene might be the most nonsensical, strangest and most didactic, involving said deranged elderly songwriter. I’m truly not sure what to make of it, but that’s also why I loved it. Also, a snippet of a favorite film of mine follows it that plays into Sam’s paranoia because he believes the movie is speaking to him directly. Then again, I don’t know what to make of the creature that preys upon him.
This might be the ultimate unsubtle existential nightmare for our modern times, while simultaneously having a surreal self-awareness and absurd sense of humor that I found engaging while many may find it indulgent and gross. It’s also kind of poking fun of Room 237 theorists while saying pop culture does in fact contain hidden meaning. Probably why weirdos like me might gravitate towards this. Make no mistake, Mitchell is constantly playing with the viewer in ways that are frustrating but compelling, while never neglecting graceful camerawork, oddly original detours, another triumphant Disasterpeace score, and several details that simply don’t make sense. Now to go back to listening to pop music and playing Super Mario Bros. Oh and trying to figure out what it all means, only to discover that it may not really mean anything.