Under The Silver Lake (2018)

Under The Silver Lake first published (in slightly shorter form) by

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 (2014), writer/director David Robert Mitchell has joined this long, reflexive tradition of Hollywood introspection with his latest, sprawling Under The Silver Lake, which burrows deep beneath the foundations of Los Angeles on a quest for buried meaning. It is a slacker conspiracy thriller whose central puzzle assumes the form of not just 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 in all this, Sam. 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 not to some musclebound goons, but more shockingly to a pair of young boys. Antihero Sam has come to L.A., part-funded by his heard but not seen mother (in significant shades of Psycho), 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 effortlessly available 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 (not quite a Rear Window, but almost) 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 female 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 – but her story, it turns out, is 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, all on a joint (if unequal) 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 graffitied so that its letters appear in reverse, momentarily framing (if one imagines viewing it instead the right way around from the window’s outside) a puzzled-looking Sam as its canicidal poster boy before he turns his back on the sign to stare absently at the two women behind the cafe’s counter. Indeed, this film is full of signs – inverted, overlooked, wildly (mis)interpreted. For here self-published comic books, posters, bracelets, pop songs, Vanna White transmissions, cereal box giveaways, sexualised advertisements, promotional biscuits, old videogame magazines 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, here dogs become 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 (as a weapon) in his own hands; and the improbable holder of all the film’s keys is one of the homeless men (David Yow) whom Sam so despises, even as he is under constant risk of becoming homeless himself. 

Several Lynchian elements, not least the setting of a key scene on Mulholland Drive and the casting of Patrick Fischler (Mulholland Dr., 2001) 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 remythologising 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 stench that the neighbourhood skunks keep spraying all over him. One thing is for sure: a lot of people who come into contact with Sam end up dead. All the signs are there (in reverse), at least for those who wish to see them, of a very different story about a dog-hating, gynophobic psychokiller in flight from reality and himself.

“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 serial-killer 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, with a sigil now painted in his own apartment warning him to ‘stay quiet’ – as a mystic initiate, or as an eyewitness to the crimes of powerful men, or indeed as a guilt-ridden criminal. Self-conscious enough about its own trash status to include a shot of shit 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. After all, there is much darkness hidden beneath the shimmering, dreamy surface of celluloid’s silver lake, and Mitchell points an accusatory finger at what we all might prefer to deny about our voyeuristic entertainments. This is truly a film into which to plunge deep, and then to emerge finding yourself, like the protagonist, wanting…

Summary: David Robert Mitchell’s L.A. slacker noir puts the cult in mystery, concealing more than it reveals about dog killings, human disappearances and the male gaze. 

© Anton Bitel