If there’s any film that defines the paranoid, conspiracy theory-obsessed times we live in — where groups of thousands of faceless identities believe Kubrick faked the Moon landing, the Illuminati controls the world, and Beyonce is a lizard — it may just be David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. The follow-up to the wildly successful It Follows is a delirious head-spin into the seedy underground of Los Angeles; a baffling acid-trip of imagery attacking you from all angles. It emulates the LA-set noirs that are more successful in their execution like Mulholland Drive, but the film still has something new to add the table — some would say too much, but you can’t fault it for its ambition.
In this version of LA, the city seems to be entirely populated by 20-somethings trying to catch their big break. In the middle of it all is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a loner stoner with such little drive, it puts a university student nearing the end of the semester to shame. He spends his days playing video games, masturbating and basically doing absolutely nothing. He’s so lazy, he can’t even muster up the energy to scramble enough money to pay rent. Sam falls down the rabbit hole when he spends an evening with his mysterious neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough). Their date ends prematurely, but is sealed with a kiss and a promise to meet tomorrow. The problem is, Sarah mysteriously disappears overnight, and Sam — consumed with deciphering codes and hidden messages — traverses LA, from the Silver Lake to the Hollywood Hills, to find her. Along the way, he discovers (among other bizarre sights): a secret girl gang, hidden messages in the music of a gothic rock band, and a code for homeless people. The story flirts with dreamscapes, urban legends and cults, getting completely carried away with its own conspiracy theories — but that’s just part of its freakishly charming appeal.
At a whopping runtime of almost three hours, Under the Silver Lake packs a lot into the dark mystery it attempts to tell. The film will likely be (and from the looks of it, already is) pretty divisive. Nothing is ever truly resolved, and the ending itself only raises more questions. Some plot points act like narrative MacGuffins that draw your attention away from what’s actually relevant to the story. The film itself is a perplexing mystery of its own, one of heightened fantasy and surrealism to the highest degree. Amongst all the chaos, Andrew Garfield’s enthralling performance anchors it all to keep it from falling apart. With a lanky frame and adorkable half-walk/half-run, his doe-eyed, jittery demeanour is both hilarious and affecting. Garfield may be too attractive to play a nerd who owns hundreds of copies of Nintendo Power Magazine — and some films fall victim to distracting its audience with star power — but he truly immerses himself in his character so seamlessly that it’s hardly noticeable.
The film is indebted to classic Hollywood, and it’s not hard to see why. Posters of Psycho, How to Marry a Millionaire, and countless other classic movies adorn living room walls; the grand, violin-driven score is a time machine back to the 50s; the opening scene is an unsubtle homage to Rear Window. This romanticism of the past gives the film a timeless quality but begins to crumble as Sam unravels the convoluted mystery ahead of him. Later on, when the film begins to question our idolisation of pop culture, the film’s frequent references to old Hollywood are shown in a new light, reappropriating the film’s neo-noir aesthetic. A character tells Sam that “pop culture floats away like tissue paper,” and the film suddenly takes on a thesis that art is only temporary, that it doesn’t have meaning. Throughout the film, I tried to decipher what it was telling me — I found myself in Sam’s head, obsessed with understanding everything — when in reality, it’s not that deep.
What struck me the most about the film upon reflection, was how blatantly unsubtle the male gaze was. The camera lingers on women and their various body parts for uncomfortable amounts of time. It’s strange that the driven women that Sam encounters even want to hook up with him, a helpless nobody with body odour, but in time, the film’s messages become clearer. Though it shamelessly continues the cycle of sidetracking women for unremarkable men, it’s in this distorted male gaze that we see the film’s deconstruction of male entitlement. Films in the past have romanticised disturbing obsessions with idealised women (think Paper Towns), but Under the Silver Lake proclaims that women don’t exist to service a man’s emotional journey.
Sam seems to be so enchanted with conspiracy theories, secret codes and hidden messages because he feels that these were tailored specifically for him. He dives deep into his investigation for Sarah — perhaps to provide himself with a sense of purpose in his pitifully lonesome life. We search endlessly for clues to nowhere, for answers to questions that will never be answered. It’s in this search that we look for meaning — a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Under the Silver Lake makes it loud and clear that our desperate clutches for answers are futile. The film forces you to reconcile that the world is indifferent to you, to confront the narcissistic mindset that we must make our mark on the world or be forgotten. As Sam’s friend puts it: “We crave mystery because there’s nothing left.”