Under the Silver Lake
I was aware that David Robert Mitchell’s shaggy dog amateur detective stoned-out neo-noir conspiracy movie had received very mixed reviews, to say the least, so I embarked upon it with limited expectations. Turns out, I liked it a lot, with some reservations. In much the same way that I liked the oft-reviled Southland Tales, admiring Mitchell’s ambition but not always where it took him. I’m dubious that Under the Silver Lake is rich and rewarding enough to warrant a dedicated subreddit pouring over interpretations of its themes and subtexts, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the dedication. And it’s surely the greatest reward Mitchell could have received. Well, aside from a hit movie.
The writer-director has been guarded about revealing too much, but he expressly advised that Under the Silver Lake is structured entirely from the point of view of Sam (Andrew Garfield). Which is to say, if it wasn’t entirely obvious, that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his encounters, thoughts and insights, as he ostensibly attempts to track down missing neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough) against a backdrop of a dog killer on the loose, are not necessarily to be trusted.
At the extreme end of that trope, this could make the entirety of the movie a fever dream. The variant is that we pick and choose what’s plausible in an attempt to sift through the manner in which his pop-culture obsessions may be feeding a warped interaction with and understanding of the world around him. We’re privy to straight-up hallucinations at various points (women barking like dogs, the guy in a dress eating a pooch) and many more surreal incidents that invite the reading of a warped perspective on Sam’s part. As a consequence, The Long Goodbye/ The Big Lebowski trappings (noir detective work, in this case done by an amateur) can only stretch so far, if our thinking about this case is not to be deemed very uptight.
Whether that’s the most interesting choice Mitchell could have made is really the crux of my issues with the movie, since the brand of “protagonist is really the killer” twist Under the Silver Lake intimates is possibly the least imaginative option available, whatever enticing incidentals or commentary it may flurish along the way. The first shot, of the reversed “Beware the Dog Killer” warning painted across a shop window, with Sam straying into frame, is pretty much an announcement of his likely culpability, and when a squirrel “falls from the sky” and is splatted in front of him, it’s pretty clear where Mitchell is leading us.
So too with the Hitchcock references (culminating in the reveal of a Hitchcock plinth), underlining Sam as voyeur in the Rear Window/ Vertigo/ Psycho vein, and so objectifying and obsessing over the focuses of his attention; his masturbatory habits initially appear gratuitous on the director’s part, until it becomes obvious (with his photo of Sarah, a Playboy and a lingerie catalogue as unsuccessful aids to stimulation) how detached he is.
It’s easy to infer a line by which – as many have – Sam resorted to killing his ex’s dog on losing her (he still gazes at her billboard) and then graduates to killer outright; his trip to the reservoir with Callie Hernandez’s Millicent apparently results in her being shot by a gunman, but her presentation during this sequence intentionally echoes the cover of his Playboy.
Conversely, we’re explicitly shown Sam beating to death the Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb under shrouds of prosthetics), but is that likely to be any more real than his hallucinations? He doesn’t respond to the act as if it’s the first time he’s killed someone – but then a full-blown sociopath possibly wouldn’t – which would be supportive, On the other hand, this Tavistock-esque (or Donald Marshall-esque?) writer of popular songs designed to influence the populace claims to be responsible not just for the likes of key tracks by Nirvana, Harold Faltermeyer and The Pixies (Where is My Mind, naturally), but also Beethoven. So maybe the entire episode is a figment of his imagination.
It’s clearly Mitchell’s intention that we interrogate Sam’s lack of perspective more and more as the movie progresses. Our protagonist berates the homeless while having just one day left in his apartment before he becomes one of their number himself, and those very homeless comment on how badly he stinks (typically an insult levelled against their number). In tandem with this, suggestions of the picture’s own problematic depiction of women do appear to be getting confused with the protagonist’s perspective (particularly when one considers the scene of the drone used to spy on a model, the idea of which suddenly becomes unappealing when she’s revealed as distraught). That said, Mitchell is clearly using male-gaze tropes throughout, even as he comments on them.
Sam: I got thinking, why do we just assume that all this infrastructure and this entertainment and open information is beaming all over the place all the time into every single home on the planet is exactly what we are told it is?
Likewise, his perspective on the vast conspiracy Sam thinks he has uncovered. Are we take it that conspiracy theorising is merely a symptom of Sam’s sickness (as in, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong with him, most likely that he is a serial killer)? His Wheel of Fortune “insight” appears to have occurred some time in the past; whether that was before or after he began killing dogs is unclear. Naturally, Sam lives in Number 23, so he cannot escape synchronicity (and yet, he makes no comment on the importance of the number).
Mitchell’s having a lot of fun with the tortuousness of the conspiracy side, and part of the fun is exactly that: it will drive you crazy, the further you dig into the minutiae. We meet Patrick Fischler’s author of the titular comic, able to provide a guided tour of conspiracy lore, including the Owl lady (see also Moloch, Twin Peaks, Bohemian Grove, the Mothman) while presenting a more benign variant on Sam’s obsessing. I’m sure Mitchell’s a big fan of Robert Anton Wilson, as the kind of gonzo approach to the rabbit hole, and reality becoming more and more pliable the more one interrogates it via essential interconnectedness and synchronicity, is exactly his thing.
That the conspiracy is both bizarre and mundane is really rather the point. For one thing, any conspiracy built up in one’s head is prone to be a let-down if held up to the harsh light of the actual version of events (as is any thinking of such an involved, intricate nature, something that can be seen very clearly in speculation over fictional narratives – just look what happened with Lost). That Sam should be led to an ascension cult of the rich has just enough relation to actual ideas (ongoing attachment to Egyptology, not least in mass-media symbolism, the Elite being heavily into the practice of occult and black arts). Yet the reality of Sam sitting in a tent speaking to Sarah, who is on the phone down below, is entirely deflating and somewhat ludicrous. As is the idea that, in order to fake his death, Jefferson Sevence had all of his teeth, some of his skin and “all of the organs he can live without” removed.
I note some on subreddit insist there’s an actual conspiracy to be unearthed in the movie, and again, Mitchell must relish that kind of impact, particularly when he’s revelling in the absurdity of Sam overlaying a cereal packet map on the Legend of Zelda from Nintendo Power Magazine issue one. Not dissimilarly, Sam making his way out of an underground bunker into a supermarket fridge. You can see traces of a range of conspiracy fiction in Under the Silver Lake, from Flicker (old Hollywood becoming a realm of mythical import), to In the Mouth of Madness, True Detective, Foucault’s Pendulum, the dreamlike half-reality Hollywood of Mulholland Dr, and even The Da Vinci Code.
I’ll admit I’m not entirely convinced by the theory that the topless older woman Sam sleeps with at the end is his mother, and less still that events leaves him with any degree of “mature” perspective on his experiences (we’d have to know exactly what he’s supposed to have done, rather than have inferred it, to gain that). If Sam is a killer, the woman might well become his next victim.
Comparing Under the Silver Lake to Southland Tales is probably inaccurate to the degree that, for those convinced of its merits, it invites poring over more in the manner of Donnie Darko or a Damon Lindelof project. The reflex of that, however, is that Mitchell’s film is all about the futility of such analytic processes, that “That way lies madness”. I can quite see why Under the Silver Lake has been labelled a folly by some – it’s very much on the indulgent side, and the unreliable narrator trope really has been done to death at this point – but even given those criticisms, it has probably embedded itself in my brain more than any other film in the past year.
Addendum 09/08/22: From a post I made on the Stolen History forum:
Perhaps most curious, and feeding into music industry conspiracy literature such as Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon is the appearance of the very Tavistock Institute and definitely Theodor Adorno-inspired “Songwriter”, who claims to be responsible for everything from Beethoven to Los Lobos to Nirvana to Harold Faltermeyer to The Pixies.
The Songwriter tells Sam “I don’t always worry what the message is. I just pass it along, I slip it between the notes, hide it away for people that know it’s there”. He tells him he wrote the music his father grew up with, and half the songs Sam sang along to as a kid:
Sam: You’re telling me there’s hidden messages in old pop songs?
Songwriter: And movies, television shows, everything you know. (plays the Cheers theme)
The Songwriter attests “I don’t care what’s fashionable and what’s cool. It’s all silly and it’s all meaningless”, essentially a repudiation of the personal investment Sam has in these creations (“…so many of the things that you care about. The songs that give your life purpose and joy”).
Songwriter: When you were fifteen and rebelling, you were rebelling to my music. There is no rebellion. There’s only me, earning a paycheque.
Sam tells him he doesn’t believe him, and the Songwriter replies “Well good, because the real message wasn’t meant for you”, further advising him “Better if you just smile and dance and enjoy the melody”.
Songwriter: Everything you hoped for, everything you dreamed about being a part of, is a fabrication. Your art. your writing, your culture, is the shell of other men’s ambitions. Ambitions beyond what you will ever understand.