Under the Silver Lake starts out, both in setting and in setup, as a self-conscious homage to noir of the neo and sunshine varieties. It exists somewhere in the space where movies like The Long Goodbye, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and half a dozen other films meet, a hazy, grungy world where things just sort of happen and mysteries only get half solved. It’s populated by familiar types lifted from the movies: the mysterious femmes fatales, the free-spirited artists, the topless, eccentric, bird-raising neighbors, the wisecracking friends, and the grizzled, aimless detective type who finds himself always one step behind a plot that turns out to be much wilder than he could have anticipated.
But as soon as the movie establishes these conventions, it slowly and methodically starts eating its own tail. Under the Silver Lake isn’t an homage so much as a remix of classic Hollywood tropes, which positions itself and its contemporary hipster characters less as the continuation of history than the end of it.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, whose previous film It Follows established him as a unique talent among American filmmakers, Under the Silver Lake is both pastiche and its own thing, a tribute to the ruins left behind after a golden age, a playful but unyielding reminder that we’ve been taught to live as if we’re watched, and a suggestion that the only logical thing to do in a world governed by illogic is to throw up your hands and frolic in the ruins. It’s poised to baffle and annoy a lot of audiences, but those who can go along for the ride won’t regret it.
Under the Silver Lake starts out as an homage but goes somewhere more startling
Under the Silver Lake is best categorized as sunshine noir, not least for its setting. Its characters live in LA’s Eastside, a contested area that includes the hipster enclave Silver Lake and feels a long way from the beach. In Silver Lake’s rendering, it’s a place where the young and carefree and not particularly ambitious go to parties and dance to music on rooftops and in underground clubs, and are haunted, figuratively, by the ghosts of departed movie stars.
There may also be some more literal reasons for the ghosts. This Silver Lake might be holding secrets. People keep going missing. Signs warning residents to “Beware the Dog Killer” pop up around town. A defenestrated squirrel falls from the sky.
At the center of all of this is Sam (Andrew Garfield), who is about to be evicted from his grimy one-bedroom apartment for grossly overdue rent but doesn’t seem terribly motivated to do anything about it. We never really figure out what Sam is doing in LA; he doesn’t seem to know either. He sits on his balcony with a pair of binoculars, smoking and watching the older woman across the way who tends to her parrots and parakeets while topless. Sometimes he has listless and genial sex with a friend (Riki Lindhome) who shows up after acting gigs in a dirndl or a nurse’s costume, bearing sushi.
One day, a girl named Sarah (Riley Keough, explicitly channeling Marilyn Monroe, down to the white halter dress) appears in the apartment complex with a little dog she calls Coca-Cola. Sam is besotted with Sarah’s butt and, after he finds a way to meet her, Sarah herself. Her room is full of Hollywood memorabilia, a poster of How to Marry a Millionaire on the wall. They sit on her bed getting high.
But the next day, when Sam goes back, she’s gone. In fact, the whole apartment is empty, save for a box in a closet containing some of Sarah’s things: doll versions of Hollywood starlets, a vibrator, and an image of Sarah, which Sam tucks into his pocket. He needs to find her.
Under the Silver Lake is stuffed full of misdirection and conspiracies
Often neo-noir is full of red herrings and plots that lead nowhere, a device that Under the Silver Lake embraces so gleefully that it eventually becomes clear it’s exaggerating the genre for effect. There’s a billionaire who goes missing. There’s a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula who keep popping up, and whose music seems to contain hidden messages. There’s a deeply paranoid indie cartoon artist who writes underground comics about the hidden secrets of Silver Lake, including the Dog Killer and a shadowy, murderous owl-faced being. For some reason, there’s a repeated pattern of “trinities” of young, beautiful women. There are parties and concerts, recreational drugs and a few conversations about sex and masturbation, and an air of pointlessness that hangs over everything.
Sam seems to drift through this world without really figuring out what is going on, running into friends and acquaintances (played by Jimmi Simpson, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez, Grace Van Patten, and many others) and ogling women in a way that both apes old Hollywood and makes it clear how embarrassing it is to be unable to stop. He tells a friend that he feels like he was once on the right path but now he’s lost and can’t figure out how to get back. At one point, he gets sprayed by a skunk.
Sam’s life finally seems to acquire meaning when he begins to suspect, possibly out of paranoia, that the world of pop culture is actually loaded with encoded messages meant for the more wealthy, those who really run the world. It’s a conspiracy of some kind. He can’t quite put his finger on it, and when he tries to describe it, he sounds insane. But it gives structure to his days.
Conspiracies often do undergird neo-noir stories, which are about the dark underbelly of the world and the evil that lies at the heart of man. Under the Silver Lake, being set in 2018 despite its midcentury trappings, expands that in natural directions, characters talking about a world “filled with codes, pacts, and user agreements,” with “ideologies you assume you accepted through free will” but actually came from subliminal messages transmitted through advertising and TV and music and the movies and the rest of the popular culture that blankets our lives at every moment of the day.
The intense paranoia that can set in once you start to suspect all those things aren’t just banal but actually intended to make you act and think a certain way is a feature of postmodern fiction stretching through the work of Thomas Pynchon to today, and Under the Silver Lake taps into that paranoia and makes it its subject.
But that’s also familiar territory for Mitchell. Over and over in Silver Lake, characters say that they feel as if they are being followed — a wink and a nod, of course, to Mitchell’s 2014 horror film It Follows, in which a teenage girl is pursued by some kind of supernatural being after a sexual encounter.
Under the Silver Lake expands that: We are all being followed, one way or another. Someone is always watching, and we’ve gotten used to it. The film is full of following and watching — first in scenes that evoke classic Hollywood movies in which characters watch with binoculars or follow at a distance in cars, and then in more contemporary ways, like hidden surveillance cameras and drones.
It’s enough to make you go a little crazy and head for a bomb shelter. But nobody’s really going to do that, at least not without taking the TV along with them, and the internet, and a phone too. By the end of Under the Silver Lake, all those references to popular culture have been thrown into a pile that suggests the movies have taught us — women especially, but men as well — how to be looked at, how to be watched, how to position ourselves to be seen, and how to properly celebrate when we do get looked at. It’s no Mulholland Drive, but the point of Under the Silver Lake rhymes with themes from David Lynch’s masterpiece: that lifetimes of watching others has instructed us in how to be watched ourselves. The movies have given us roles to play in real life. And someone else is always profiting.
Whether that makes Under the Silver Lake actually neo-noir or something more akin to intellectual horror is an open question by the end of the film. But it also doesn’t really matter. Sam can’t escape that cycle, living in a world governed by constant, all-seeing eyes. And he doesn’t know how to do anything without playing a part.
So in the end, he just dives into another story. What else can we do? We all look at the movies, but the movies look back too.
Under the Silver Lake premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018 and opens in the US on April 18, 2019.