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.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.