Andrew Garfield stars in Under the Silver Lake as Sam, a man who can be best described as some kind of less cool, geeky, distant relative of Inherent Vice‘s Doc Sportello. Like Doc, Sam also embarks on a drug-addled investigatory odyssey through Los Angeles, but he isn’t nearly as well-equipped for what’s to come.
David Robert Mitchell‘s third feature is a perfect follow-up to his 2014 break-out horror film It Follows. His artistic vision is wholly unencumbered and at its most playful, and among the many things you’ll find here are a serial dog-killer, drug-infused sugar cookies that double as concert tickets, lavish chess parties (they’re more fun than they sound), and a series of mysterious symbols from something called the “hobo code.” All of these seemingly nonsensical things come together in the film like an adrenaline shot to the heart thanks to Mitchell’s assured direction and writing.
Other than obvious comparisons to films like Inherent Vice, one of the first things you’ll notice about Under the Silver Lake is how infused the movie is with Old Hollywood motifs. In the opening scene, Sam returns home and resigns to his balcony. With binoculars in hand and slumped in a chair, he starts spying on his neighbors à la Rear Window. He’s a much more perverted version of L.B. Jeffries, though, and intensely sets his sights on both a topless older woman on a nearby balcony and a young woman in a bikini by the pool.
Said young woman is Sarah (Riley Keough), and she’s channeling Marilyn Monroe in all white. There’s also something about her that will immediately make viewers think of a Hitchcock blonde. Undoubtedly this je ne sais quoi is what pegs Sam’s interest. When she and Sam formally meet, she emerges from the shadows into the light in a moment incredibly reminiscent of Kim Novak in Vertigo. The two eventually have a drink together and plan to hang out again the next day.
Prior to their meet-cute — which is more tinged with a sinister feeling rather than a romantic one — strange things are happening around Sam. Roadkill seemingly falls from the sky, a local billionaire goes missing under suspicious circumstances, and shadowy human-like figures roam nearby parks after midnight. For the most part, Sam tries to ignore these strange happenings; that is, until he goes to see Sarah the next day and finds her apartment entirely deserted.
Ignoring his impending eviction, unemployment, and the fact that his car is about to be repossessed, Sam starts investigating Sarah’s disappearance. This leads him on an absurd, nightmarish, and bafflingly ridiculous trip through the City of Angels. Under The Silver Lake goes both to places other films have gone before (think: Mulholland Drive) as well as places that are definitely… different.
While at large, the film’s plot may seem like it’s been done, Mitchell’s film remains a wholly unique and wild ride. Under the Silver Lake deserves to join the ranks of the many great modern noirs as it both maintains and revitalizes old tropes of the genre while also tying everything together hilariously for one of the greatest movie-going experiences you’ll have all year.
Through Sam’s search for Sarah, the film drags us down a rabbit hole of questions about popular culture and mass media. Are all conspiracy theories inherently stupid? Or could it actually be possible that everything has a secret coded message that’s just waiting to be cracked? Could the ultra-rich know something we don’t? Could the media we consume be programming us to think and act a certain way? Sam certainly seems to thinks so. And his way of thinking is only aided and abetted by people like an author (Patrick Fischler) who writes a mysterious zine from which the film takes its title.
Sam undoubtedly discovers something on his quest, but the film still leaves us asking a ton of questions, both about the overall point of the events as well as Sam’s involvement in them. These core questions are what make the film both so fun and so dark. On the one hand, Sam is asking himself the very same things we are, and Garfield does a great job transitioning from gleefully incredulous to furiously frustrated. But the film also brings about a hard truth: maybe the universe doesn’t care about us as much as we’d like to think it does.
The only thing scarier to Sam than the countless horrific and disturbing things he encounters in Silver Lake is the idea that the world might actually be entirely indifferent to his existence. Sam meticulously analyzes everything he thinks might be a sign because the alternative — acknowledging that these things really could just be meaningless and that he really is just a lazy, unemployed 30-something with no greater purpose — terrifies him.
Under the Silver Lake makes us ponder something bleak: is looking for hidden meanings in everyday minutiae our only solace in a universe that’s indifferent to our existence? Through the way the film tackles these ideas, it cements itself as a fantastic neo-noir that successfully pays tribute to the many masterpieces that have come before it. The staples of film noir, a genre which emerged among a population living in the wake of the Second World War, were desolate city landscapes and pessimistic, nihilistic philosophies. Under the Silver Lake perfects the modernism of the neo-noir by visualizing these ever-present anxieties (namely the futility of searching for purpose and the decimation of privacy in the digital age), and blending them with humor and a sharp, distinct style.
The film will undoubtedly be divisive, but remember this line that Sarah says to Sam (quite genuinely and happily): “There’s nothing I can do about it now. So I might as well make the best of it.” And by the end of the film, Sam just might realize she’s right.
Under the Silver Lake premiered at 2018’s Cannes Film Festival, and it opens theatrically on June 22nd, 2018.