Under the Silver Lake is a compelling postmodern neo noir about a missing person
case that leads to a huge conspiracy. It is somewhat reminiscent of the works of
Alfred Hitchcock as well as Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, and any films or shows
that depict a village, town or city as a magnet for weirdness and or as a
cesspool for hidden corruption.
The film is David Robert Mitchell’s long awaited follow-up to the excellent
horror film, It Follows (2014) about characters that are pursued by a sinister
demon. Under the Silver Lake is closer in tone to a paranoid detective film, but
it has many surreal and supernatural elements. The film is far more ambitious
but less solid and consistent than its predecessor.
The film’s studio apparently did not seem to have much confidence that this
offbeat film would find an audience, and they kept postponing its release. Under
the Silver Lake had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 15,
2018. In France, it was released on August 8 of that year, followed by Belgium
on August 15.
The film was originally scheduled to be released in the United States on June
22, 2018, but it was pushed back several times to April 19, 2019 where it had a
very short theatrical run. It finally came out in June 18, 2019 on DVD
Under the Silver Lake is anchored by a fine performance by the British actor,
Andrew Garfield who earned accolades for playing the lead in Amazing Spiderman
and an Oscar nomination for his stunning performance in Hacksaw Ridge (in my
opinion this was his peak performance so far). Under the Silver Moon is unlikely
to get him as much recognition or a second nomination because the Oscar voters
would probably find this film too weird and/or meta-fictional.
Garfield plays Sam, a millennial tech savvy sleuth who is only somewhat hard
boiled. Emily Yoshida, writing for Vulture, perfectly describes our hero: “He’s
Phillip Marlowe if Phillip Marlowe spent way more time on Reddit.” Sam comes to
believe that the world is filled with secret codes, plus subliminal messages and
he will do anything during his weird odyssey to prove it.
Garfield is ably assisted by one of the reigning Indy goddesses, Riley Keogh who
showed great promise in such films as Steve Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Andrea
Arnold’s American Honey, and Lars von Trier’s
The House that Jack Built as a
gorgeous but elusive neighbor. There is something appropriately unreal about how Keough plays the role.
The film’s main characters are reminiscent of the protagonists in Rear Window
and Body Double. Garfield’s Sam sits silently and obsessively observing his
neighbors with his binoculars. He especially likes to watch an older woman who
prances around topless in her apartment with her pet parrots.
Sam is a total embodiment of what feminist critics (including Hitchcock scholar,
Laura Mulvey) would call the male gaze. It is not always clear if the film is
sending up the Hollywood objectification of women or if it is complicit in it. I
have a hunch it is both.
But Sam’s favorite subject to watch is the attractive female neighbor that he
observes through the Venetian blinds of his apartment (played by Riley Keough).
She is completely image obsessed and driven by nostalgia. She seems to be as
hurt by Hollywood’s preoccupation with artifice as Sam.
She dresses like she just walked out of How to Marry a Millionaire, and her
apartment is a Hollywood shrine filled with Marilyn Monroe images. One day,
Sam’s dream comes true and he actually meets her, and they have a memorable life
changing night (for him at least) getting stoned and talking about pop culture.
Their relationship and much of the film seems to be sending up the
superficiality of the Hollywood worship of pop culture
The next day she vanishes without warning and her whole apartment is cleared
out. He goes on a long journey to find her, and he seems as obsessed with her as
the main character is with the dead girl in Laura.
He finds that that Silver Lake is even stranger than he imagines. He encounters
a band called Brides of Dracula (which ties into the film’s obsession with
threes) that is somehow connected to the woman’s disappearance, as well as a
trendy religious cult, and a kind of owl faced succubus or dream demon. Also he
learns that Silver Lake is occupied with ghosts of its past inhabitants. Sam
also keeps getting sprayed by a skunk but incredibly none of the people at the
parties he goes to can figure out where the terrible smell is coming from.
Although the script is highly inventive and chock full of ideas, it also
something of a mess. Sometimes the film maker just seems to be throwing ideas
against the wall to see what sticks (Sorry to Bother You, which was a bit
better, also sometimes felt like this). But most of Under the Silver Lake worked
well for me.
In the end, the film does not quite come together in a way that satisfactorily
wraps up all the disparate strands in the narrative, but it is still a
deliriously fun ride for most of its duration. Viewers who are looking for
something different should seek it out. It may be a cult classic in the making.