Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Laura-Leigh, Zosie Mamet, Jimmi Simpson
Watch Under the Silver Lake online in the UK: MUBI UK
There is a whole subgenre of films set in Los Angeles – including Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland (2006), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), and David Lynch’s triptych of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006) – which uses a mystery format to chart the criss-crossing psychogeography where fantasy and reality, surface and undercurrent, all intersect in America’s City of Dreams. Flush with success from his indie horror It Follows, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has joined this long, reflexive tradition of Hollywood introspection.
The sprawling Under the Silver Lake burrows deep beneath the foundations of Los Angeles on a quest for buried meaning. It is a slacker conspiracy thriller whose central puzzle assumes not just the form of a movie mystery, but a modern mystery rite, ensuring that this is a ‘cult’ film in more than one sense. It is also, given its location at the epicentre of filmmaking, a metacinematic hall of mirrors. One scene even has star Andrew Garfield clutching a Spider-Man comic book with sticky fingers, as though clinging, Spidey-like, to his own filmography.
Garfield plays the unlikely detective figure, Sam (Garfield). He is no Spade, though, but a feckless, aimless interloper, bed hopper and party jumper, whose unemployment means that he is just days away from eviction, and whose only talent appears to be his tenacity at solving puzzles and connecting dots. The first time we see him use his fists, this brutal, bloody beating is being delivered to a pair of young boys. Sam has come to L.A., part-funded by his mother, to follow the usual dreams, and he is, indeed, something of a fantasist, preferring to pursue other, more elusive women than to stick with his actress girlfriend (Summer Bishil), and choosing to engage in tail-chasing investigations rather than to earn his basic rent.
Lost for purpose, broken of heart and hiding anger issues beneath a flaky exterior, Sam passes time ogling his female neighbours from his apartment balcony that overlooks the communal pool. He is full of confused longing, but not quite prepared to take the plunge. He wants answers, without quite knowing what the question is.
The question arrives in the form of Sam’s new neighbour, Sarah (Riley Keough), whom Sam sees, meets and falls for in the space of a day, only for her – and her two roommates, and pet dog – to disappear the following morning, with a strange sigil painted on their apartment’s interior wall. Driven by desire, Sam follows a series of disparate, obscure clues through the hidden underbelly of popular culture. His hope is to find some trace of the missing Sarah, who becomes an allegory for the way that L.A. treats its young women as (more or less willing) sexual playthings, dancing to the tunes of older, richer white men on a quest for immortality.
Under the Silver Lake opens with a sign – “Beware the Dog Killer” – seen from inside the cafe window on which it has been stuck so that its letters appear in reverse. Indeed, the film is full of signs. For here, self-published comic books, posters, bracelets, pop songs, Vanna White transmissions, cereal box giveaways, sexualised advertisements, promotional biscuits, VG game maps and billboards all come heavily coded and open to unexpected (if often deeply suspect) readings, while the dominating Hollywood sign under which these strange events unfold is perhaps the most mysterious and inscrutable of all. There really is a dog killer on the loose in L.A., and, as one character (Callie Hernandez) points out: “Anybody who could kill a dog wouldn’t think twice about killing a person.”
In any case, dogs seem to be a symbol for women, as different female characters (at least in Sam’s dreams and drifting mind) are seen both yapping and barking in a decidedly canine manner. Meanwhile, local middle-aged billionaire Jefferson Sevence has also gone missing, and the increasingly obsessive Sam becomes convinced that everything somehow forms part of a bigger picture, painted for the exclusive understanding and enjoyment of the superrich.
It is, of course, part of Mitchell’s own bigger picture, which, coming in at a whopping two hours and 20 minutes, offers a solution to its impenetrable mysteries that by the end is unexpectedly – disappointingly, even – quite clear and banally silly, while also dangling enough loose threads and surreal digressions to keep nagging at your brain long after it is over. In this city, reality is unstable: the pages of a paranoid comic book come to life (along with their improbable owl-faced villainess); Sam’s favourite Playboy cover image (of a topless woman underwater) takes on real, violent form (merging two rather different kinds of desire); the guitar of Kurt Cobain that features on a poster in Sam’s bedroom will soon be wielded by him; and the improbable holder of all the film’s keys is one of the homeless men (David Yow) whom Sam so despises.
Several Lynchian elements, not least the setting of a key scene on Mulholland Drive and the casting of Patrick Fischler as a comic-writing conspiracy theorist, suggest that we may be in the realm of psychogenic fugue, with Sam’s search for truth also a quest for denied self – “living the wrong life, like a bad version of the life you’re supposed to have”, as he puts it. Perhaps the crazy explanation that mamma’s boy Sam uncovers for all these disappearances, and the hallucinatory experiences that he has along the way, are, in fact, covering up and re-mythologising something more sinister about our would-be hero and his own elided nocturnal activities. There is undeniably something that does not smell quite right about Sam, and it isn’t just the neighbourhood skunks that keep spraying all over him. One thing is for sure: a lot of people who come into contact with him end up dead.
“Welcome to Purgatory”, Sam is told near the beginning of the film, as he enters a themed rooftop party where the band Jesus and the Brides of Dracula are playing. Here, all of L.A. is figured as graveyard and mausoleum – as a city of the living dead – where a population of desperate wannabes are just passing through on their way to whatever lies beyond, and feeding on whatever flesh they can find in the meantime. Which is to say that Under The Silver Lake truly is a mystery in the ancient tradition, concerned with the secret rites of passage from life to afterlife. It is also an ambitious postmodern portrait of the world’s image-making capital, an oddball gothic and a funny-weird satire of the entertainment industry’s inner workings (and barely hidden misogynies).
Sam ends up in a dissociative state, on the outside looking in and living the dream – as a mystic initiate, or an eyewitness to the crimes of powerful men, or a guilt-ridden criminal. Self-conscious enough about its own trash status to include a shot of faeces floating in a toilet bowl, yet sophisticated enough to double-bluff its own meaning and to retain dizzying equivocations that will reward multiple viewings, this is an awkward, ungainly modern movie-making myth for the #MeToo generation.
Under the Silver Lake is available to rent on MUBI UK.