“Well, was that weird enough for you?”–-Matt Surridge, author and festival reviewer, at Under the Silver Lake screening
“I usually like weird, but not THIS weird.”–Amazon product review for Under the Silver Lake
DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell
FEATURING: Andrew Garfield,, Patrick Fischler, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb
PLOT: Sam has two deadlines: first, figure out what to do about his “criminally” overdue rent before his eviction in five days; second, investigate the mysterious disappearance of the young woman he recently met in his apartment complex. Over the ensuing week, he explores East L.A.’s hidden messages in a quest of discovery, stumbling from conspiracy to conspiracy. Spoiler Alert: he does not solve his rent problem.
- The critical and financial success of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 horror film It Follows gave the writer/director the clout he needed to get Under the Silver Lake, his passion project, made.
- The film debuted at Cannes in 2018 to a cool reception. Distributor A24 had originally planned for a summer 2018 release, but pushed it back to December 2018, then again to 2019. Rumors circulated that the film would be recut in the interim to make it shorter and less confusing; thankfully, that did not happen.
- The film was a financial flop, making back only about 2 million of its 8 million budget in its theatrical release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Spending so much time looking quietly bamboozled, any shot of Sam in “investigation mode” is memorable for its combination of mystery and listlessness. The long montage of him pursuing three young women driving a white VW Rabbit convertible nicely mirrors the audience’s journey as we follow him into a dreamland of ever-so-subtly sinister machinations.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: The Homeless King; cereal clues guide you to the tomb
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: What it may lack in specifics, Under the Silver Lake makes up for in volume. At a sprawling 2-and-1/3 hours, the narrative starts at “odd” and stacks on odder and odder. The background events (a serial dog-killer, the disappearance and death of a flamboyant billionaire) are themselves strange, but merely provide the unlikely framework on which Mitchell plasters the following: animated cult ‘zine sequences, another serial killer, a spooky old mansion hiding an existentially depressing secret, and a conspiracy wrap-up beyond our time and place.
Original trailer for Under the Silver Lake
COMMENTS: Divisiveness is a sure sign of a film’s promise. Considering the split in reactions to David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his hit horror film, It Follows, you can easily see that Under the Silver Lake is nothing if not “divisive” (as of this writing it has an even split between 1-star ratings [37%] and 5-star ratings [37%] on Amazon). The crowd at the Fantasia Film Festival, where I originally saw it, was a bit more receptive, as one would expect at a genre festival; although at least one reviewer dismissed the whole exercise as wallowing in white male privilege. Regardless of any subjective reaction, Under the Silver Lake is, objectively, a complicated movie, with all its disparate threads woven together into a narrative that, though staggering in complexity, finishes its hero’s narrative arc just a couple of hundred feet from his home.
This hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), is an out-of-work, mid-30s fellow in East LA who discovers he has five days to pay the back-rent for his trendy apartment before being evicted. Not unduly bothered by such mundane distractions, he spends his time lazing on his balcony, ogling a comely (and invariably topless) older woman who lives across from him, distracted only by the arrival of a comely (white-bikini-clad) lass, Sarah (Riley Keough), at the communal pool. After some hook-up-interruptus, Sarah disappears the next day and our shiftless protagonist finds something worth his infinite spare time: discovering her fate. In the process, he encounters a semi-reclusive conspiracist (Patrick Fischler), crashes a few trendy parties, meets the Homeless King (David Yow), and discovers that his obsession with subliminal messaging in pop culture is actually more valid than his friends suspect. When he makes a major discovery about a nebulous songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), this revelation is quickly followed by a more horrible truth, one that would shake a lesser (or less lazy) person to the core.
Sam is a cipher, and is almost wholly reactive. Simultaneously channeling Doc Sportello, with his gut instinct for solving mystery, and Barry Lyndon, with his unfailing tendency to passively work adversity into advantage, Sam cannot be anything more than an empty vessel. Any personal drive or ambition would work to his disadvantage. Sam randomly encounters Sarah, and the story is triggered; Sam randomly comes across a young woman going through Sarah’s abandoned apartment, and the main “chase” sequence is triggered; Sam randomly attends a “secret show”, and the discovery of a pop-music conspiracy is triggered. Indeed, Sam is only active in the final act, and only when he is alone in his apartment deciphering coded messages on records, in cereal boxes, and “Nintendo Power” magazines. He has one interest in life: cryptography; as for work, whatever job he might have had has been long abandoned.
The film’s narrative style falls squarely in noir territory: average, not-too-bad-a-guy everyman relying on his wits to counter malevolent forces. What Mitchell brings to the proceedings is a complex (and consistent) set of add-ons. There are endless parades of three-somes, à la fairy tales. Sarah has two close friends; she’s also a fan of the classic three-woman film, How to Marry a Millionaire (even having created three custom-made Barbie dolls for the leads); the “Shooting Star” girls that give Sam his big break are three roommates whom Sam encounters at a graveyard movie screening. The list continues, of course, as you’d expect from an epic. Then there’s the mystery itself, which is practically drowning in coded messages requiring quick fingers on the pause button.
Beyond the “hobo code” and a cipher that brings a conspiracy to light runs another crypto-puzzle, with markings throughout the movie’s runtime. Graffiti—on retaining walls, bathroom stalls, as well as billboards—can be unscrambled by a key found in the conspiracist’s living room (which, in one of the dozens of odd touches, is cluttered with “life masks” of celebrities ranging from Johnny Depp to Abraham Lincoln to Kim Kardashian). This volume of hidden signs speaks to two things: that Sam, though intelligent, is probably paranoid and certainly unreliable, and that Mitchell has engineered this seemingly rambling story with incredible precision. Even if you don’t like the movie or its characters, it cannot be denied that a whole lot of thought went into this.
And as much as he’s practically a “nothing” protagonist, everything cycles back to Sam. Mysteriously, he seduces (or at the very least charms) every woman he encounters. This perhaps says something specific to the L.A. scene (which is dissected in various cinematic ways throughout). Sam’s just a low-key, average guy, but is the only character without pretentiousness (unlike, say, his “actor” friend Allan, who is always at parties and incongruously wearing a woman’s blouse), which is, I am told, something of a rarity in Hollywood.
He’s also the only kind of person who could cope with this seemingly muddled, portentous narrative blitz. Lacking a capacity to just cope without judgment or hostility, Sam would be overwhelmed by the gyration of interwoven forces around him. And for us, this leads to the overall strangeness of the film. By not having to worry about the fate of the “hero”, we can simply watch as weirdness after weirdness maneuvers its way onto the screen, knowing that our boy will be A-okay. David Robert Mitchell took a lot of heat from some corners, both for alleged misogyny and for crafting what many considered messy nonsense. However, Under the Silver Lake is his story, and he tells it wholly on his own terms. He made something divisive, yes, but by eschewing tonal, stylistic, and narrative compromise, he made nothing short of a modern Hollywood classic.
G. Smalley adds: If you need more Inherent Vice in your life, here comes another messy California-set stoner conspiracy theory noir. This one puts you right inside the mind of its paranoid and dangerously unhinged protagonist. Under the Silver Lake is a clever satire that parodizes along parallel lines. It rips the shallowness of Hollywood (and by extension of the American Dream), depicting a world where everyone is a whore desperately climbing the ladder of social standing—except those at the very top, who use insidious deceit to keep an elite few at the pinnacle of fame and fortune. Simultaneously, the movie satirizes conspiracy theorists, insulting them by taking them at face value. Rather than the endless series of recursive plots inside of plots you find in Pynchon novels, Mitchell posits that all the craziest conspiracies are actually true, and that there is a bottom to the rabbit hole—allowing his protagonist to bottom out when he reaches it.
I will take minor issue with one point Giles makes above: I think Sam is a pretty bad guy. He beats up a couple of school age brats, and his utter disdain for the homeless—when he himself is a squatter days away from living on the street—is, if not hypocritical, at least culpably clueless. Even so, it is possible to empathize with an antihero, and at the end, he does earn a few tears. Sam may indeed be an Everyman—but this doesn’t say much for every man.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Despite all the devilishly clever moments, freaky episodes, and general weirdness, Under the Silver Lake is ultimately unsatisfying… Although I can’t claim the film works in a conventional sense, this is the kind of movie that gets rediscovered at some future date and labeled with the term ‘cult classic.'”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)
“At the foot of this Lynch altar are the random Mulholland Drive-esque plotlines that lead nowhere; in just 140 minutes, there’s a serial dog killer, a fully-nude, knife-wielding owl woman, a homeless dude with a crown, lots of LA skunks, a random pirate, and much, much more. These plotlines are introduced, they’re briefly considered, and then almost immediately forgotten for the next absurdity to catch the story’s fancy. Anyone with a passing familiarity with surrealist filmmakers will note that this style of narrative organization isn’t Mitchell’s own, but it’s a noble tribute nonetheless and a blast to watch unfold.” –Ben McDonald, Cineccentric (contemporaneous)
Under the Silver Lake – Studio A24’s page has a brief blurb about the movie as well as a drop-down menu showing the many ways one can purchase this title.
IMDb LINK: Under the Silver Lake (2018)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Talk With David Robert Mitchell And Andrew Garfield – After the 4/20 screening of Under the Silver Lake at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, director and star answer some questions
What Follows It Follows? – Vulture‘s interview-cum-article with the director
Decoding Under the Silver Lake – One of many sub-reddits devoted to the movie; careful following these up lest you get sucked into the vortex
LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE – This site’s original List Candidate review of Under the Silver Lake
HOME VIDEO INFO: Under the Silver Lake is presently available in just about any format you’d care to lay your hands on. (Though from what I’ve researched, any VHS copy would have to be recorded from a live broadcast on TCM.) It streams (buy or rent), it comes hot-pressed on DVD (buy), or cold-pressed on a nicer Blu-ray (buy).
Though everything looks and sounds impressive on the physical release, the extras are scanty: one bit from production designer Michael Perry, and another concerning the music design. Both are worth watching, but some comments from the writer/director would have been a nice addition for those who like that sort of thing—or, even better, a fully-fledged conspiracy ‘zine documentary. But as always, the movie is the thing, and that thing is well presented.