Under the Silver Lake: Oneiric, Challenging Head-Trip

I actually saw Under The Silver Lake over four months ago, or, rather, you could say I started watching Under The Silver Lake over four months ago – I don’t know if it’s finished yet. A film so obsessed with obscurity that its premature burial by A24 seems almost intentional, David Robert Mitchell’s take on the postmodern Hollywood noir practically drowns in ambiguity. But where the critics have tended to cry “Southland Tales!”, the death knell for sophomore efforts, it’s clear that the frustrating effects of Mitchell’s excess are intentional.

Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an aimless, unemployed millennial who doesn’t seem to care about anything. Usually, with a film such as this, Sam would be an aspiring actor or screenwriter, but here he seems to have no occupation whatsoever – that’s the first sign things are off. Sam likes to stare at the mysterious Hitchcockian blonde next door (his room sports a Rear Window poster, although Mitchell appears to be taking the piss more than trying to make a film-school reference), Sarah (Riley Keough), who he surprisingly manages to hit it off with one night. The next morning, she’s gone. Not just ‘gone’ but completely erased – apartment totally stripped and empty, and mysterious symbols drawn on the walls.

Naturally, Sam begins a long, treacherous quest not just around but straight through a threateningly oneiric Los Angeles to find her – although one suspects his therapist would conclude that he’s really looking for himself. Beyond that, it’s hard to describe what happens in Under the Silver Lake. There are concerts in mausoleums, a dog killer, the king of homeless people, vicious murders, and a man who looks like a pirate. The actor from Denny’s in Mulholland Drive turns up, and one gets the sense that he’s only there to reference Mulholland Drive. That’s just the very surface of a deep pool of strangeness from which Mitchell drinks freely.

It is a movie so dense that if you look at it from a distance, it might appear like a rather useless brick: a nonsensical story-driven piece that fails at whatever the hell it’s supposed to do. But close-up, you can really see the intricate detail David Robert Mitchell has carved into this odyssey. Every frame seems to have some hidden message: morse code on menus, the zodiac cypher on toilet walls, puzzles on pizza boxes. People over at r/UndertheSilverLake keep discovering things which are just too perfect to be coincidence: fireworks spelling out morse code, hidden messages on t-shirts which enter and exit the frame in a number of seconds, clues within in-movie songs. People have used the film to guide them to GPS co-ordinates in real life, although nobody has yet visited the spot alluded to. What will they find?

Some of these clues seem to add up, and some don’t, but Mitchell makes it really fucking hard to dismiss his film as completely coincidence driven: I keep worrying that, like Mulholland Drive or Donnie Darko, someone will come along and say ‘oh, actually, the film makes perfect sense from x angle’. And just like that, Under the Silver Lake flips and becomes both its own vindication and a metaphor for itself, forcing us to scrutinise the picture for some sort of cosmic meaning, where there’s most likely none. Like Sam, we fall deeper and deeper into a world of surrealism and uncanny coincidence but get no closer to receiving an explanation.

From another angle, Mitchell suggests that the constant barrage and recycling of pop culture creates an inescapably coded media landscape filled with hidden meaning, but that this meaning is paradoxically meaningless: trite and inconsequential. Yet the director, via the constant barrage and recycling of pop culture, has himself created an inescapably coded media landscape filled with hidden meaning, whose meaning is paradoxically meaningless. More paradoxically, this very meaningless gives the film its meaning: a moment in which Sam wakes up underneath a gravestone reading ‘HITCHCOCK’ is a such a wry comment about the vacuousness of LA History and pop culture that a considerable portion of reviewers have criticised it as vacuous itself.

Similarly, a virtuosic scene pitching Garfield against the creator of all modern music drums in the commercial meaninglessness of pop, whilst its cartoonish lack of realism ironically and self-reflexively doubles down on that point: pop is denied even this relatively meaningless explanation, by virtue of its unreality. Under the Silver Lake works a bit like a slingshot pointed towards the audience, stretching away and creating tension by travelling further into esotericism, then smacking us in the face when we realise that its esotericism was the point all along.

Is this making sense? I ask because I honestly can’t tell.

Closer up, the film works as a markedly nuanced commentary on millennial angst. Sam is a member of the first generation to do worse than his parents, and as such embodies the plotless drift of so many twenty-and-thirtysomethings who try to find purpose and good fortune in their lives against all the odds. Only knowing the stories of prior generations, Sam is naturally confused by his lack of luck and attributes it to an obscure constellation of occult occurrences, believing that some higher power is holding him back from greatness. In this way, the film acts as a modern-day fantasia; an allegorical Pilgrims Progress for a disenfranchised generation.

You can read it, in fact, as almost anything. A critique of the male gaze, perhaps? A metaphorical representation of growing up? An allegorical history of Hollywood? The film is, in some way at least, a Rorschach test, merely by way of an apparent noir that dissipates in direct proportion to the runtime. Ironically, the very fact that you can read it as almost anything (or nothing) is itself self-reflexive and sort-of-the-point. There’s no escaping the black-hole like grasp of Mitchell’s meta-narrative ambitions if you’re willing to succumb to them. Like the sort of acid trip the film often resembles, we’re thrust into recursive, increasingly three-dimensional patterns of thought which spiral far out from the traditional orbit of storytelling and theme, treating the film itself as more of an object than a narrative work with which to wrap the true narrative around.

Mitchell’s breakout, It Follows, which can roughly be traced as the root of a modern art-horror obsession alongside The Babadook, proved that the director can do ‘scary’, and Under the Silver Lake also treads heavily onto nightmare territory. Many of its sub-plots and diversions read like the sort of urban legend you’d see on Creepypasta and later in your dreams, but none more so than the curse of the Owl’s Kiss, a slender, naked women who slashes the citizens of Los Angeles to death in their sleep with her claws. In the handful of scenes where this creature appears, the effect is genuinely spine-tingling – the almost human shape having the sort of effect the original Slenderman photos had on my young psyche. Like It Follows, the jump-scares refuse to materialise, but the film is all the more effective for its restraint.

In the style department, too, Mitchell absolutely hits home. Under the Silver Lake looks uncannily beautiful – like something that came out of the 1970’s and has just been given a loving 4k restoration for the big screen. Its retro wide-angle beauty is only compounded by a wonderfully saturated colour palette that relishes the iconography of LA. The Badlamentiesque soundcape by regular collaborator Disasterpiece perfectly complements this almost uncanny valley arrangement – the film truly feels like it’s from another time and another place.

In its final minutes Under the Silver Lake features a parrot. It squawks and squawks the same garbled, half-human half-bird noise over and over again as the movie dares us to find meaning; to hear some vital clue or resolution amidst the chaos. But there’s nothing: the noise envelops us in a sinister, inhuman melody that’s totally impenetrable. And that’s when you realise, all too late, that this film was really about you all along.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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