By Vikram Murthi
Under the Silver Lake
Dir. David Robert Mitchell, U.S., A24
Conspiracy theories foment and proliferate in uncertain times. Heightened chaos begets delusional yearning for coherency, a skeleton key to unlock our confusing sociopolitical infrastructure. In the past decade, the Internet’s myriad k-holes of false information, combined with the propagandistic side effects of unregulated social media and traditional media’s failure to act as a factual gatekeeper, have increasingly narrowed the gap between mainstream society and fringe beliefs. It’s depressing, yet unsurprising that phrases like “the deep state,” “Qanon,” and “Pizzagate,” to name just a few, have social purchase despite their obvious illegitimacy. The slow 4chan-ification of the culture unfortunately signals the logical end point of competing niche communities, each with its own fearful echo chamber, finally gaining power in the larger world.
While the multiple intersecting conspiracies in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake are too absurdly whimsical to fit the alt-right profile, they nevertheless confirm ideologies generally shared by theorists: the universe is governed by design, existing power structures have financial or self-sustaining motivations to obscure that fact, and the proof lies hidden in plain sight. Mitchell treads a thin line by empathizing with that fevered desire for order, the belief that everything is connected, while also satirizing the paranoiacs who seek it. He crafts a shaggy dog mystery with various potentially aimless threads—missing persons, serial killers of humans and dogs, billionaire suicide cults, coded messages in pop culture detritus, bomb shelters, underground tunnels, homeless kings, secular Gods—to create a pervasively hallucinatory atmosphere, one that suggests danger behind every corner and answers just out of reach. The film’s labyrinthine plotting ultimately reflects an unresolved tension between the compulsion to construct comprehensive meaning from disorder and the inherent futility of such an undertaking. Similarly, it affirms a general paranoia surrounding shadowy elites while also demonstrating the meaningless of such validation. Is it edifying to confirm your worst suspicions about who pulls the strings and why, or does it merely spotlight your own cosmic insignificance?
Fittingly, external factors have all but primed Silver Lake for a cult following. After a mixed-at-best critical reception at the film’s 2018 Cannes world premiere, A24, which had bought it sight unseen two years prior, delayed the theatrical opening twice over a period of ten months before finally dumping it on VOD just three days after its limited release in New York and Los Angeles. Given its brief limbo in the States, Silver Lake subsequently found a comfortable home on torrent sites, rendering it accessible catnip for the Reddit crowd who would’ve swallowed it up anyway. The irony of a film that skewers pattern-driven obsession being embraced by a crowd known for such behavior cannot be understated.
Though it might be too severe to describe A24’s skittishness as cowardly, it’s still frustrating that a company that prides itself on its unique production slate wouldn’t throw its weight behind such a seemingly marketable film. Then again, maybe a sprawling study of male delusion rife with (mild) provocations regarding female representation might not be the best horse to back in the current climate. A Gen-X slacker in Millennial garb, Sam (Andrew Garfield) spends his days spying on his female neighbors and shirking anything that resembles responsibility. He faces eviction but doesn’t seem particularly perturbed by it; even if he were, he has no job or income to speak of. In between casual sex and television news, Sam takes interest in his neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough), with whom he becomes enamored after one casual evening watching How to Marry a Millionaire together. When she vanishes without a trace the next day, he becomes obsessed with her disappearance, which quickly metastasizes into mania after he starts seeing clues and messages everywhere. Random hobo codes, scoreboards, song lyrics, prizes in cereal boxes, old issues of Nintendo Power magazine—all of it becomes grist for the cypher mill. The signs are blocking out the scenery and breaking his mind.
Mitchell’s formal rigor keeps the action fluid even as Silver Lake constantly threatens to become too enamored with its playful digressions. From the first shot—a180°-pan from backwards letters written on a café window to Garfield’s intrigued visage, a neat summation of the film’s intentions—he exudes such confidence in his intricate messaging that the film’s dark alleys (and dead ends) compel on their own merits. The primary visual referent might be Mulholland Dr., but Mitchell never strikes a Lynchian tone. He forgoes surrealism or dream logic for rambling lucidity: Sam wanders in and out of various in-progress sequences with only the slightest direction, following leads and dropping them as new paths emerge, but his journey never feels disjointed. Random encounters accumulate; spare references gain significance as new information crystallizes. Not everything Mitchell introduces “adds up,” but it still coheres as a sound portrait of interconnected urban mysteries. It’s less Southland Tales, more After Hours. (Incidentally, while “stoned” might be an apt state in which to watch Silver Lake, the film doesn’t have the hazy tenor of The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice. Sam’s vices are booze and cigarettes, and when drugs do materialize, they’re consumed accidentally and serve to intensify buried fear.)
It helps that Mitchell finds something of a muse in Garfield, who gives his best screen performance to date by successfully weaponizing his puppy-dog demeanor. Sam’s hands-in-pocket, curious-guy act masks numerous red flags: stalkerish tendencies, perverted impulses, and bubbling rage. An irresponsible doofus at best and violent criminal at worst, Sam leverages his gentle white-guy persona for access and information and sex, similar to how Robert Pattinson’s character in Good Time employs his whiteness to run roughshod over a marginalized community. Garfield’s earnest public image combined with his achingly sincere theatrical history—Never Let Me Go, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, Breathe, his recent turn as Prior in the latest revival of Angels in America—makes the believability of his asshole-gone-wild character all the more unexpected. At the same time, Garfield plays up his likability, while also grounding his actions and behavior in a realistic emotional framework. That performative tension between genial and abhorrent has tripped up some viewers, especially those who have trouble with the depiction ≠ endorsement axiom. But Mitchell lays his cards out on the table early: within the first 20 minutes, Sam discovers his car has been keyed, stalks the two young kids responsible, and beats the shit out of them. It’s a jarringly brutal scene that paints our “hero” in a monstrous light, especially because Mitchell’s frame emphasizes his relative size and strength compared to his targets—not to mention the close-up of his unhinged, satisfied face as he stuffs an egg in one of the kid’s mouths to muffle his screams.
Sex drives Sam as much as paranoia, and like in Mitchell’s previous film It Follows, it represents an escape as much as it portends doom. Horniness impels Sam to connect with Sarah in the first place, and it also brings him in contact with a mysterious female trio connected to her disappearance, as well as Shooting Star Escorts, which employs fledgling actresses who need to pay their rent. Mitchell constantly fills the frame with attractive women in various states of undress; photographer Mike Gioulakis lingers on their alluring beauty, imbuing Silver Lake with a wandering sexuality designed to both titillate and entrap. Sam mentions early in the film that he first masturbated to model Janet Wolf on the cover of Playboy, posed upside down in a pool, covering her bare breasts with her hands. Later, a woman is murdered and dies in the same exact pose. Lust curdles into darkness just as quickly as it blossoms into physical release.
Most of the women in Silver Lake aren’t officially credited with a name or referred to by one. This isn’t a misogynistic oversight, but rather an expression of Sam’s worldview that sees women as vehicles for sex, information, or both, and not much else. Their personalities or beliefs barely register as an afterthought. He frequently ignores their casual pleas for sanity or reason, even as it pushes him closer to danger. At one point, Sam jerks off to a spread of magazine images in a desperate search for his next clue, effectively “thinking” with his dick. Later, Sam and his buddy (Topher Grace) use a drone camera to spy on a lingerie model only to catch her crying—a scene that too obviously signposts the gap between Silver Lake’s worldview and the mentality of his male subjects. Mitchell clearly celebrates beautiful bodies—Garfield baring his ass can be viewed as a compensatory measure to the rampant T&A, though the tone in his scenes is more comedic than sexual—and finds sweetness in carnal energy. In Mitchell’s films, sex might be a double-edged proposition, but it’s always worth pursuing. “It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter,” says Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), a dancer and another voice of reason whom Sam refuses to listen. “We have this tiny little window when we can have fun…fuck…be free.” Mitchell may very well view all three of those options as one and the same, and a better use of one’s time than chasing conspiracies in the Hollywood Hills.
Pop culture, on the other hand, evokes a wasteland of images and sounds divorced from their sources, cross-pollinating across vast space and time, eager to be picked apart for extratextual meaning. Silver Lake’s numerous references aren’t exactly tied to one generation’s nostalgia. Sam’s posters include Creature from the Black Lagoon, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Wolf Man. Mitchell nods to Hitchcock’s Rear Window whenever Sam uses his binoculars on the balcony. He name checks actress Janet Gaynor and her starring role in Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven in the script. Sam watches Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Andy Griffith Show on TV. Marilyn Monroe recurs at least twice: How to Marry a Millionaire and in a fantasy pool scene that recalls George Cukor’s unfinished 1962 film Something’s Got to Give, in which Monroe would have appeared nude. Mitchell even interpolates his own debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover by “recasting” two key roles for characters in Silver Lake. The grab bag of allusions befits Under the Silver Lake’s Millennial context, pulled from a mix of childhood properties, physical media, and the Internet. Though news footage in the film dates the narrative of Under the Silver Lake to 2011, a passing reference to Dick Clark’s death, which occurred in 2012, and civilian access to drones renders it an ambiguous temporal space, sometime during the Obama administration but with all of the free-floating distrust of the Trump era. Yet, the majority of the characters are, broadly speaking, young people moving within a quasi-fantastical Los Angeles space that caters to their whims. It’s pitched at a demographic who, like Sam, could head to “old music night” at a club and hear Cornershop’s 1997 single “Brimful of Asha.”
It’s not just postmodern remixing at work here, but instead a mirror into Sam’s obsession with patterns across the media landscape, which Mitchell skewers by emphasizing its ludicrousness. If uncovering a conspiracy depends on laying a cereal box prize over a Legend of Zelda strategy map, is it worth the pursuit at all? If numerology must intersect with throwaway pop lyrics in order for more clues to emerge, how valuable are those clues in the first place? Sam eventually lands at the enormous home of the Songwriter (Jeremy Bibb), a rich, aging pianist who claims to have written every pop song of the 20th century, coding them with messages designed for specific individuals. In a bravura musical sequence, the Songwriter punctures the aura surrounding art and creativity by rubbing its mercenary impulse in Sam’s face. He plays a medley of hits from the last 50 years and explains that they all amounted to dirty Kleenex recycled for financial gain. When he lands on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he strikes a raw nerve with the Cobain-worshipping Sam: “That song was not written on distorted guitar,” he sneers. “No, I wrote it here, on piano, somewhere between a blowjob and an omelet. There is no rebellion. There is only me earning a paycheck.” The Songwriter might be full of shit, and the scene could be imaginary (Mitchell occasionally blurs the line between “real” and “fantasy” in Silver Lake), but it still plays as a refreshingly cynical rebuke to anyone who devoted their life to pop culture and wondered why they still felt empty.
“You ever feel like you fucked up somewhere a long time ago and you’re living the wrong life? Like the bad version of the life you’re supposed to have?” Sam muses out loud. A standard concern for the indulgently aimless, perhaps, but that sense of purposelessness feels particularly potent now that we’re eminently aware of how and why we’re fucked from every possible angle but generally powerless to meaningfully combat the systems responsible. When Sam eventually unravels the truth, what he discovers only highlights his own irrelevance and throws his personal failures into sharp relief. His paranoia is confirmed but ultimately proven inconsequential. The messages were there, but they either weren’t for him or pushed him to circle a bottomless drain. It’s the worst fear of a raving theorist, that their search for order inevitably spotlights the chaos in their own life. When all signs point to a world falling into decay, Silver Lake suggests, the best move might be to tend to one’s own garden and try to make the best of a bad situation, even if that amounts to forever living with the unknown. Accepting one’s irrelevance within the world’s grand machinations takes a bigger leap of faith than embracing any unified theory.