There are very few mystery films that can make the journey as much fun as Under the Silver Lake. The world writer/director David Robert Mitchell builds is so very detailed that we can envision it clearly in our minds. We rarely see the same location twice, but each setting is something just as visually arresting as the last.
Andrew Garfield plays Sam, a deadbeat peeping tom with no job, but the nice apartment of someone who has one. Sam also has an interest in conspiracy theories, with one in particular revolving around an idea that there are hidden meanings in popular culture, such as TV shows and music, that only the ultra-rich people of society are privy to.
When he’s not decoding the clapping patterns of Vanna White, he spends most of his day smoking cigarettes and sitting on his balcony with binoculars spying on women in his apartment complex. He’s smitten by one of his neighbors, Sarah (Riley Keough), the exact definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, whose ditziness keeps her mysterious enough to propel the interest of the audience as well. After befriending her one night, the two of them hit it off romantically until Sarah’s roommates come home. She tells Sam they can hang out the next day. But that next morning Sam notices her apartment is completely empty and he becomes concerned to the point of obsession. He believes there’s something weird going on, and perhaps her disappearance is part of something bigger.
Throughout the film we’re not sure if Sam is an unreliable narrator or simply just the right amount of crazy to attempt to uncover hidden secrets of the powers-that-be. On his trip down the rabbit hole of the mysterious underground subculture of Los Angeles, Sam discovers things he never thought he would. And some he wishes he never did. He has this overarching theory that everything in popular culture serves a greater purpose than merely entertaining us. He questions the validity of what makes things popular. Are they popular simply because someone makes them popular? Because someone who’s rich and powerful wants them to be? It’s the same reason why you can listen to a song that nobody knows and like it much better than ones played to death on the radio. You ever think it’s odd that there are tons of non-creatives in positions of power in the entertainment industry who are telling us what we’re going to watch and listen to?
It’s a big reason why I, myself, dipped out of the music world. I was sick and tired of unsuccessfully writing songs in hopes of getting them on the radio, while being surrounded by ones that were worse than mine actually being overplayed on the radio. When I realized that popular songs were popular because of reasons unrelated to actual quality of music, I knew I no longer wanted/needed the approval of my form of art and expression to be the commercial viability of my songs. And to everyone else, that “success” was the litmus test for how talented I was. I became disenchanted by the industry that only validated by talent by how much money I made from it. It still comes up now and then when I tell people I used to write music, but that’s for a different day.
Back to the plot…
Sam further speculates that perhaps the megalo-rich have constructed TV shows and songs and movies in order to communicate things to each other so that no one else will ever find out. These obsessions serve Sam’s quest to find Sarah well, but at times he realizes that peeking behind the curtain isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and the further he delves into these mysteries, the more of the magic is lost for him. He becomes disenchanted by the mystical ubiquity of pop culture–the one thing he holds sacred in his life.
We like Sam because he’s our protagonist, but objectively we probably shouldn’t. His priorities are all in the wrong places and he’s completely self-serving, only caring about fulfilling sexual desires and treating women as a means to that end. Not to mention he has no plans to get any sort of income to pay his criminally overdue rent. There are more important mysteries happening throughout the city that we see pop up, and perfectly within grasp for Sam to easily solve, but he completely ignores them because finding out what happened to Sarah would benefit his desires the most. Everyone he interacts with in this movie just accepts his behavior and his opinions so as not to come off as judgmental (welcome to LA). We’re shown how this same mindset may also be what’s fueling this destructively selfish world known as show business, enabling the objectification of women and promoting the male gaze. And maybe the fact that it takes awhile for us to realize our opinion about Sam is Mitchell’s point all along.
There’s a lot going on, both story wise and thematically, that it could be easy for us to get lost, but luckily Mitchell keeps everything organized. Even though the film runs at about 140 minutes, I could’ve watched another 30 minutes of mysteries being uncovered. That’s how good the director is at holding our attention and making even the slightest details seem interesting. I guess that should be the goal of every director. Although few can pull it off like this.
Under the Silver Lake is heavily rooted in Hollywood’s yesteryear, with references to an array of movies from different eras. If we pay close enough attention we know this story takes place in present day, but Mitchell brings a certain ambiguity in some instances where, if randomly dropped in, you might think you were the ’60s or the ’90s, which is all part of the tone he’s going for.
The pulsating musical score by Disasterpeace helps with this, paying subtle homage to Bernard Herrmann classics, while haunting us with its own originality, helping build that same sense of suspense.
Whether on a macro or micro scale, the conspiracies touched upon in this movie are grounded in actual ideas, which transcend the confines of this film alone. These theories could actually be real. And it gets us thinking. Mitchell also secretly drops his own symbols to decode throughout the movie for those who have the time to solve it (or just look at Reddit).
Due to the popularity of Mitchell’s previous film It Follows, there was a lot of hype surrounding Under the Silver Lake, initially giving the film a June 2018 wide release, only to be pushed back to a year later with a much smaller VOD release. A loss of confidence that doesn’t really make much sense considering fans’ excitement for this new project. It’s interesting, considering this is a movie that heavily critiques pop culture and the higher powers controlling everything we consume. A downgraded release like this only further sparks conspiracies as to why “someone” wouldn’t want more people to see this project. As a moderate conspiracy theorist, myself, I’ve wandered down my own rabbit hole, discovering more meaning to this film than I even initially thought there to be. There’s some interesting stuff out there (please, check Reddit).
Under the Silver Lake is a fever dream for conspiracy theorists. Not only smartly satirizing the social culture of wide-eyed 20-somethings in Los Angeles, but also well defining the paranoid society we’re currently living in, helping us make sense of it all and letting us know we’re not too crazy. Beneath its wry humor and presumptuously phallic obsessions is a film that keeps us on the edge of our seats unlike most others out there. A fun and thoroughly entertaining mystery that begs for repeated viewings and has the arsenal to make them enjoyable.