This may sound rather silly, but some films are simply polarizing by design. They may not necessarily be made with the intention of so sharply dividing critics and audiences alike, but no matter which way you look at them, it almost seems as if they’re slyly wagging their fingers at everyone who seeks them out, daring them to be shocked by their strange and/or unorthodox craft. I’m sure there are many unsuccessful—read: stupidly, mind-numbingly pointless or pretentious—examples of this, though in cases like David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake, it’s clear to me that others are just drastically misunderstood.
As of the moment, Rotten Tomatoes’s critical consensus may be a little vague on why no two people can seem to agree on this unapologetically bizarre neo-noir (“Under the Silver Lake hits its stride slightly more often than it stumbles, but it’s hard not to admire—or be drawn in by—writer-director [Mitchell’s] ambition”), but after watching it, the reasons for this couldn’t be more evident: it’s secretly a satire of everything some have accused it of indulging in.
Not unlike, say, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, this satire is so consistently poker-faced, so devoid of any wink-wink nudge-nudge moments to the audience, that it’s entirely possible to watch much of the movie without realizing this. Although I don’t remember liking Troopers all that much on my first watch (I do want to give it another chance, though), this film is so masterfully paced and crafted that I still would’ve enjoyed it either way. On the flip side, however, such lampoons—some of them subtle, some of them not—are so cleverly integrated into the story and characters that ignoring them altogether would, at the risk of sounding seriously hyperbolic, nearly be akin to not watching it at all.
In Under the Silver Lake’s first few minutes, we’re not given much time to know Sam (Andrew Garfield), a rent-owing LA resident disenchanted with life, before he’s spying on a female neighbor lounging topless on her porch, taking a different woman to bed while TV news is playing in the background, and peering at the swimsuit-clad rear end of another female neighbor once he’s finished with her.
As a way to set up the protagonist of a fairly serious (if undeniably playful) mystery-thriller, this obviously sounds a tad juvenile, but it’s clearly meant to reflect Sam’s—and, considering how much of the film sneakily mocks it, Hollywood’s—own shallow, adolescent view of the world. It’s no coincidence that through his perspective, some of the women he runs into (or dreams about) literally bark like dogs, or that one of the sinister forces he later finds himself up against is Owl’s Kiss; a fully nude woman (with an owl mask, of course) who sneaks into houses and seduces their occupants, only to bloodily murder them in their sleep, but I’m getting far too ahead of myself.
What jolts Sam out of his boring, sex-addled daily life isn’t some life-shattering news case, a personal tragedy in his life, or somebody he knows possibly being killed under suspicious circumstances (although that does happen later). Only one of his female neighbors—the swimsuit-wearing one—has to move out with her roommates overnight after he starts hanging out with her, and since she’s apparently too pretty for him to ever get over that (“I don’t understand why she didn’t tell me”, he says after finding her apartment empty) , he’s immediately on the trail of what possibly could be a hulking, interwoven tangle of weird rooftop clubs, serial dog killers (no relation to the barking women—at least, not from what I’ve currently pieced together), and wide-reaching conspiracy theories, or what possibly couldn’t. See the movie yourself to find out which.
Now, although my expectations for Under the Silver Lake were certainly quite high, one thing leaving me a little skeptical was the inclusion of [POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS] powerful, Illuminati-esque secret societies as part of the danger Sam runs into. Don’t get me wrong here; the concept of such organizations and/or people pulling all the strings certainly sounds intriguing, but the way I’ve seen it used in most popular media (coughcoughcough theleftbehindseries coughcoughcough), coupled with real-life keyboard warriors aggressively exploiting the population’s fear of them for years now, seemingly left them impossible to tackle without my eyes winning Olympic Medals from rolling so hard. Mitchell’s thoughtful, self-aware, and genuinely unnerving way of exploring these groups—and, thus, steering well clear of such hamminess—proved me wrong. [END SPOILERS] There may only be a few horror-ish sequences in the entire film, but they’re very hard to shake.
In other words, Under the Silver Lake may take shots at Hollywoodian stories of its type, but somehow never forgets to have a compelling story of its own. Some of the other criticisms leavened against it, however, zero in on how overwhelming, yet frustratingly cryptic the plot can be—not very far off from how I felt about Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (another neo-noir revolving around sexually frustrated men, albeit a far more hazy and muted one) on my first watch. Whereas that film was often slow and murky, Lake is zippy, witty, and—despite how vulgar and brutal it doesn’t take long to become—effortlessly melts in your mouth like chocolate.
Both the cinematographer (Michael Gioulakis) and composer (Disasterpiece) from Mitchell’s previous film, the low-budget ‘80s-horror homage It Follows, return here, and the former’s hypnotically vibrant atmosphere seamlessly pairs with the latter’s jazzy creepiness to complement the tense, escalating surrealism. Not a single moment arrived in which I wasn’t trying not to blink in fear of missing another deceptively candy-colored layer being peeled off, or happily finding myself way off-base in what I expected to happen; in other words, the willful opaqueness with which certain things are presented never left me starved for more. In fact, even while typing these words, I’m still eager to piece apart every single clue, symbol, and subliminal message (yes, you read that right) spotted—or not yet spotted—in the film’s dark, watery depths.
Perhaps the curious lack of answers for everything points towards how much more there is to Sam’s world than he’ll ever know, or the ultimate meaninglessness of any of the mysteries and conspiracies surrounding him from all sides. At this point, it’s arguably just as possible that I’m sounding just as hyper-obsessive as Sam himself. Isn’t getting swept up in the unknown one of the most alluring parts of mystery, though?