David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is an unsurprisingly divisive experience. It challenges you to bear witness to the unseemly realities of the wealth-power relationship of Hollywood while also presenting such realities with a greasy film of surreality. It is also a film that appears to relish in the masturbatory excesses of an over-sexed L.A.
This is evidenced in one of the first things we see in the film. As the curious yet distant Sam (Andrew Garfield) gazes at the unabashed nakedness of his older neighbor (Wendy Vanden Heuvel), the concept of voyeurism comes to the fore. The scene nods to Rear Window and The Long Goodbye—there is a lot of Hitchcock and Chandler embedded in the film—but, as presented through the unmotivated protagonist, it is lackadaisical and hollow.
Sam finds himself quickly wrapped up in a deep conspiracy when his neighbor disappears in the middle of the night. An underworld of rich-versus-poor, hidden messages, and shady characters appears to Sam, but for most of the movie he is content to be a watcher. He positions himself on the outskirts of these mysterious inner circles, and he observes. Almost through pure incident, the plot unravels before his eyes.
The scattershot plot leads Sam around Los Angeles and eventually to an indistinct end, and the journey is certainly more intriguing than the destination (aside from the Camusian absurdity of said destination). The world that Mitchell populates is compelling, but it is limited by its lack of coherence. Motifs of dogs, puzzles, messianic figures, masturbation, and sex create tenuous connections along the trail. But the imagery ultimately means little to the plot.
What the imagery serves is a loose thematic connection between this Los Angeles (which exists somewhat out of time) and the dark realities of Hollywood’s seedier side. As depicted in the film, L.A. is a male-dominated society that churns through young women, leeching onto them for their beauty and then spitting them out.
Young actresses who cannot break through into stardom moonlight as prostitutes. On the flip side, Sam and his friend (Topher Grace), who seems proud of his defeated cynicism, watch through drone footage as a women undresses. Grace’s character looks on half-heartedly at the potential of female nudity, then looks on in indifference when the woman, alone on her sofa, breaks down crying.
Mitchell’s film approaches this dichotomy and this indifference to women’s autonomy, but it lacks the bite or drive to truly say anything meaningful about it. At times, it looks at the issue with attempts at humor, as in the scene where Sam follows a woman into the restroom in order to extract information from her, only to find himself kneed in the groin and ridiculed by a group of women. Other times, as with the invasion of privacy with the drone, there is a distinct bitterness to the issue.
In either case, the film resolves that nothing can be done about it. The resolution to the noir mystery, too, bears this out. As kooky as the answers to the mystery are, they further the thematic idea that the cultural state of affairs in Hollywood are ingrained. The fantastical turn the mystery takes also undercuts any serious investigation of gender dynamics that the film may have been attempting.
There are sequences in Under the Silver Lake that are fascinating. One involves a medley of songs played on a piano. Another involves a monologue about the lack of secrets left in the world while a character eases through a play through of Super Mario Bros.. Other sequences are baffling and distracting. These include the dream sequences depicting women barking and a scene involving Sam inexplicably realizing the answer to a map-based puzzle.
There is certainly originality in Mitchell’s third directorial effort. There is a haziness to the noir pastiche that is fun and approachable. But there are also a number of elements in the story and themes that are, at least initially, off-putting. While these are intentional choices meant to illustrate a particular world, they don’t add up to something particularly meaningful. To put it simply, the sum of the parts are lesser than the presentation of the parts.
Under the Silver Lake: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)