In a scene straight out of Rear Window, our slacker hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), is on his balcony smoking a cigarette, idly watching women go by. Despite having just had sex with a different girl (Riki Lindhome), he finds himself instantly fascinated by Sarah (Riley Keough), a striking girl wearing a wide-brimmed white hat. Soon she and Sam bond over her dog (his recently died), and they quickly find themselves kissing in her apartment. She ends up calling a rain-check on sexual intimacy before asking him to come back the next day, yet when Sam returns to her flat, she is gone. Sensing something fishy about the whole thing, he sets out to find her, in the process uncovering a city-wide conspiracy.
Under the Silver Lake is functioning in pure Raymond Chandler mode here, with many different narratives all cannibalised together in order to create a true shaggy-dog story (containing real, live shaggy dogs). In short order, it covers everything from the sudden death of a billionaire philanthropist to a dog killer on the loose to a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula to secrets tunnels hidden all over Los Angeles, absorbing every loopy story under the sun into one massive narrative stretching well over two hours. Starting with one classic motivation — the sudden disappearance of a beautiful girl —Under The Silver Lake evolves into a sprawling adventure that updates the neo-noir for the millennial generation.
Trying to follow the plot exactly will lead to madness. A far more effective strategy is to let the various symbols wash over you, then connect strands of meaning between different elements. Think of it like a hazy stoner combination of Inherent Vice, The Player, Mulholland Drive, and The Long Goodbye, with a little bit of Pulp Fiction thrown in for good measure. This is Hollywood through the looking glass — a land full of icons, where everything seems to be a reference to something else. Silver Lake is simply awash in symbols new and old, meshing everything from silent film actress Janet Gaynor to Super Mario Bros to Amazon drones; this is catnip for nerds who spend too much time on Wikipedia.
Under the Silver Lake functions as an allegory for the Reddit generation — those who are obsessed with finding hidden meanings in pop culture that bear no relation to the meaning of the original text. Here, clues are found in video games, cereal boxes, and musical records. Nothing can just be a work of art in itself; it must be part of some National Treasure-style quest.
This obsession is embodied in our protagonist, who doesn’t have it together at all. Holding no job and behind on the rent, his madcap quest is the only thing that truly stimulates him. Once we find out why he is so fixated on conspiracies and patterns (in a scene devastating in its simplicity), it’s hard not to feel sympathy for this person who feels like he has nothing left. Andrew Garfield does a really good job here, like a precocious mixture of Joaquin Phoenix and Elliott Gould, evoking both vulnerability and obsession within the same expression.
This inquisition of male fragility doubles up as a meditation on the male gaze. Nudity is frequent here, whether it’s the woman across the balcony who wears no bra, the pictures in the magazines he masturbates to, or the mysterious naked woman who kills men in their sleep. This abundance of breasts and behinds gives the film a feeling of fantasy — as if the director can’t believe he’s got this budget, and will stuff it with as many beautiful women as possible. While seeming to function as a critique on the one-track mind of our protagonist, it will probably also prove the most divisive element of an otherwise fascinating movie.
Under The Silver Lake functions as both a large-scale satire of society while acting as an intimate character study of the male psyche. It follows a rich tradition of film noirs as much about the person solving the case as the actual conspiracy being uncovered. Running at 135 minutes, the movie takes its time to luxuriate in a specific vibe of failing actresses, sleazy producers, and everyone else in between. There is a lot to take in here, and no doubt subtle clues that this reviewer missed. A film about the perils of trying to ‘solve’ every part of pop culture, it will be dissected in the weeks and months to come for its rich visual tapestry of classic Hollywood signifiers. Nobody will solve it entirely.
David Robert Mitchell, who broke out of the fence with the exciting It Follows in 2014, is definitely someone to keep an eye on, and credit to producers A24 for honouring his singular vision. He shoots the movie like Paul Thomas Anderson, lights it like Tarantino, scripts it like Dashiell Hammett, and edits it like the Coen Brothers. Under The Silver Lake is simply exciting, fun filmmaking. Let’s just hope it leads to a rebirth of Hollywood’s most stylish and reflexive genre.