Skip to main content

There is no rebellion. There's only me, earning a paycheque.

Under the Silver Lake
(2018)

(SPOILERS) 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. But 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 best reward Mitchell could have received. Well, aside from a hit movie.

The writer-director has been guarded about revealing too much, but he has 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 into 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 at is possibly the least imaginative option available, whatever enticing incidentals or commentary it may deliver 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, but on the other hand, this Tavistock-esque (or Donald Campbell-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 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 doappear 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). On the other hand, 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 that 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 likely 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 idea that the elite are 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 to not being 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 like no other film in the past year. 



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.