By Tim Jackson
Under the Silver Lake would be infuriating were its Charlie Kaufman-inspired adventures not so entertaining.
Under the Silver Lake, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Streaming on Amazon Prime and other PPV platforms
I had no idea what I was getting into with David Robert Mitchell’s film Under the Silver Lake, and after two plus hours I was still not sure. This exercise in modernist neo-noir is a patchwork of clues, cross references, and hidden meanings that may or may not add up to anything. Andrew Garfield is Sam, an unemployed resident of a Silver Lake apartment complex, who sets out on a McGuffin-like hunt to find a missing woman.
Like Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Sam spends his afternoon peeking through binoculars at his neighbors. When he spies a young and beautiful women named Sarah, he heads down to introduce himself. Played by Riley Keough, the sexy and mysterious female is watching How to Marry a Millionaire on TV; three figurines of the stars of the film, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Becall, sit on a shelf, and there are classic horror posters on the walls. She engages him in quirky conversation: “I saw you spying on me earlier. At the pool. Were you masturbating? It’s not that strange. Doesn’t everybody?” Dogs are a theme here and hers is named Coca Cola because, as she explains, “He’s as dependable as sunshine” adding, “I think that was a slogan for Coca Cola” (Note: It was actually a slogan in 1953).
The two have a quick fling. When Sarah suddenly vacates her apartment, Sam becomes inexplicably obsessed and heads off on a Vertigo-style wild goose chase to find the missing girl. Meanwhile, we hear reports on the news about a missing billionaire. Kids vandalize Sam’s car, wannabee actresses offer him sexual favors, and for some reason his mother offers poorly timed calls with film recommendations. And, since Sam owes months of back rent, the landlord pops in regularly. Whether these random characters or incidents are part of a larger pattern is yet unclear.
The voyeurism that kicks off the film is later reprised when Sam’s friend makes use of a drone to peek in windows. This is Hollywood, so thespians and costumed figures pop up without explanation. One group dressed as pirates make regular appearances — they recall Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, an image that was glimpsed earlier in the film. There is also a dog killer on the prowl! Dogs play a crucial role — one leads Sam to a (possibly) significant revelation. A sinister group of angry starlets even growl like dogs. Mostly, Sam’s quest boils down to him finding inscrutable codes in unlikely places: a map in a cereal box, a “hobo map” of obscure symbols, a record album jacket, and Issue #1 of Nintendo Magazine. There are self-conscious echoes of many films: Eyes Wide Shut, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, and Mulholland Drive. There’s a homage to Marilyn Monroe from her unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give, and an excellent take on the Wizard of Oz where a path leads to the mansion of an eccentric songwriter who claims to have secretly written all the greatest pop hits of the century.
Random tangents and conspiracy theories are everywhere. Some are ridiculously convoluted, others hysterical exaggerations of the everyday postings that might be found on the internet. Most scenes aren’t grounded geographically; time and distance are hopelessly ambiguous. Sam’s odyssey is filled with incidents that don’t serve any reasonable narrative purpose; instead, they appear to be disconnected clues and red herrings. This would be infuriating were the Charlie Kaufman-inspired adventures not so entertaining. A terrific score by Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland), who scored the director’s last feature, It Follows, adds a layer of suspense reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s work with Hitchcock. Ironic counterpoints are provided by R.E.M, The Association, and a gooey version of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” performed by a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula.
Under the Silver Lake is filled with warm West Coast light and dreamy images of L.A. I was amused by its dadaesque take on pop culture, Hollywood life, and conspiracies — even though the last half hour goes off the rails. By that time, the film has either won you over or lost you completely. From blockbusters like Inception and The Shining to America’s obsession with the TV drama Lost, there is an audience for enigmas wrapped in puzzles dipped in surreality. Incomplete plot trails and unsolved questions give viewers and fans plenty to discuss, generating a community — tailored for the internet — of the happily baffled. Already there are long Reddit posts attempting to decipher the cryptic pieces. Good luck …
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.