Under the Silver Lake is a very odd movie, purposefully obtuse in a way that invites an immediate cult following. It’s no surprise that the film’s journey into theaters was fraught with setbacks; after a polarizing reaction at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the June 2018 release was pushed to December, then pushed again to April of this year when it wasn’t deemed an awards contender. This April release featured a very limited theatrical rollout that coincided with a VOD release prior to its debut on Amazon Prime Video (where I caught up with it). In a way, there has not been a consistent period of discussion regarding the film as its release was so mishandled, and I have a feeling that the conversation surrounding it will continue years onward as more people analyze it.
I think its nearly impossible to dismiss the craft put into Under the Silver Lake; the film lulls its audience into a hypnotic state in which we’re never totally clear what is intended to be important, or what is just a product of the inherent weirdness. There is certainly a deep mythology to what writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created, but in many ways, the film is an experience. That’s something that is often said, but I think the frantic journey of discovering what the film is, the crushing impact of its length, and the analysis of its text (which in many ways feels like a response directly to analysis) are crucial to understanding it.
Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a pathetic loser who’s on the verge of being kicked out of his apartment when he has a chance encounter with a beautiful woman (Riley Keough), who promptly disappears. Sam becomes obsessed with finding her, as he attempts to make sense of the strange occurrences in his Los Angeles community, which include a serial killer of dogs, a prostitution ring, a pop group with subliminal messages hidden in their songs, and a mysterious group seeking ascension to another plane of existence.
Is Sam crazy? Are we simply viewing the sequence of events from his warped point of view? It’s clear that Sam isn’t intended to be a redeeming protagonist, as is evidence from Garfield’s terrific performance, but sometimes we are entranced by his ideas about the subliminal and secretive elements of society. At the same time, it’s clear that the film’s attempts to advocate for Sam’s position that there must be something tying everything together is meant to be challenging- how much are we really suppose to relate to this obsessive, creepy guy, and what does that say about us as a viewer?
What makes the film so unique is that it manages to spontaneous and spiritual, yet pay off the thematic core of a search for answers. It’s dark, shockingly violent, and often genuinely scary (Sam’s obsession with the dog killer lead to a suspenseful sequence where he views a crime through a video monitor), yet there’s an inherent absurdism to all the wisdom it provides. There’s not as much outward comedy as the premise may suggest, but as a viewer we’re able to constantly shake our heads and stare in disbelief at what we’re watching.
As for Garfield, this is some of his best work, and a new chapter in his career. While he’s given tremendous performances in the past- The Social Network, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, 99 Homes, the first The Amazing Spider-Man, all of them are variations of an idealistic and optimistic, likable protagonist. With Under the Silver Lake, Garfield has taken the quirkiness and neurotic elements of his past performances and channeled them into a truly disgusting individual. He captivates our attention through his hapless misadventures and encounters with the strange and eclectic supporting actors, yet we’re often reminded that this guy isn’t the ideal version of anything.
Since the film is told entirely from Sam’s perspective, each supporting actor is mainly there to give Garfield with information or insight that propels him to his next step. In doing this, we never get to fully know any of the other characters, which is precisely the point. There’s a one note shallowness that everyone brings to their roles that reflects Sam’s narcissism, and it’s also a great pallet of intriguing character actors. Ruben Fischler in particular has fun as a comic book writer who introduces Sam to ideas about subliminal messaging, and Riley Keough’s character Sarah reflect the perfect driving force for this hypnotic journey.
It’s also clear that the film is trying to be disorienting when it comes to any technical elements. The score is overtly bombastic, and while at first it may feel like a satire of the noir elements that are satirized, it also gives a legitimacy to Sam’s quest. The strange imagery, including large, detailed environments and odd animated segments are purposefully off putting, and reflect the film’s ability to never be pinned down in one place or as one thing.
Is Under the Silver Lake a masterpiece? I think there is definitely an argument to be made for it, and there’s not a lot of films I’ve seen recently that are this rich in both subtext and detail- it’s a layered meta commentary that is so rich with meaning that even the indulgences feel like they have value. Yet, it’s also that willful obtuseness that makes it hard to get into fully. It’s hard to fully evaluate a film in which I’m not entirely sure what its intensions were- that’s also what makes it so fascinating. Grade: A