“Everything you hoped for, everything you dreamed of joining… Is a fabrication. Your art, your writing, your culture, is all just a shell of other men’s ambitions. Ambitions you will never understand.”
David Robert Mitchell‘s highly anticipated junior entry, Under the Silver Lake is a film for any cinephile, and any of you who have lived or live in the city of stars. At surface value it is a erotic/drug trip/noir-comedy that seduces us into hoping into the pool. We follow unemployed, lonesome pothead Sam (Andrew Garfield) as he follows a variety of strange clues in his East LA neighborhood that lead him into the world of murder, Hollywood stars, underground mausoleum music scenes, conspiracy theories, chess parties, drive in theatres, the realm of the Hobo King, and so much more. Imagine The Big Lebowski + Mulholland Drive + Thomas Pynchon. And at the head of this hallucinatory investigation is Sam, the 21st century reddit/gamer university student version of Philip Marlowe. His cereal box investigation to find the new Marilyn Monroe flirt “girl next door”, Riley Keough leads him into an entire noir-tinged drop into the rabbit hole. The detail given in terms of the densely layered subplots make the primary plot all the more fascinating to just obsess over. It’s the type of film that demands a second viewing, and I can safely say that upon first watch I have yet to crack the entire code. The amount of homage throughout the film is alone to entertain any admirer of classic Hollywood, but it simultaneously provides the diegetic mystery with a curtain to disguise itself.
I sort of get why A24 buried this, and it’s not because the film was bad. Quite the contrary, Under the Silver Lake has easily joined my top 5 films of the year, in all its film noir atmosphere. Now, not to get all conspiracist on Hollywood and the industry, but we all know certain things occur… And the major mystery of Silver Lake revolves around aspiring actresses, celebrities gone missing, “paying your dues”, murder, and the fantastical-dirt/grime city that is Los Angeles. So, in this current political climate, maybe this artistic throwback to Golden Age Hollywood was not the best time for mass marketing? That’s just a theory, because regardless of talking about it or not, everyone knows exactly how Hollywood functions. I think that really promotes the themes and messages of the pop culture filled film, and how they coincide with the creation of LA’s own Hollywood folklore. Speaking from experience, LA is rather mundane, but it’s lighthouse beacon status from Hollywood alone makes it one of the brightest places on Earth. But at the same time, with a powerful light, there must be a strong shadow cast beneath it. Los Angeles thrives on the Ying-Yang dichotomy both sides of the coin.
Similar to Mitchell‘s sophomore success, It Follows, the time setting of the film has some clues, but never any certainty. Remember that shell phone thing in It Follows that throws off the clothing style and the classic muscle cars? Well, Silver Lake also has a myriad popular culture references, all blended with the glorious 40-50s Hollywood. The entire plot revolves around popular culture and the media image, whether it be the breadcrumb pieces of evidence, the parties, the films Sam watches, and the landmarks around town. The film seems to be set in the contemporary world, but we are only reminded of that by our main protagonist. From the way Sam dresses, his Black Mustang, his iPhone, his use of Google, and a drone scene, the film bounces through the different eras, but is always permeated by the love letter to classic film both in and out of the film. I would even go as far to say that Silver Lake treads on the border of being David “Lynchian“.
Two elements that truly stood out to me were the brilliant score by Disasterpeace and the iridescent cinematography. On top of the actual score to the gumshoe plot, there was even a diegetic band named “Jesus & the Brides of Dracula“. The visuals are purely crafted to capture that sense of golden age mis-en-scene, further promoting that sense of estranged fascination. Mike Gioulakis is an incredibly talented rising cinematographer, and based off of his two past films with Mitchell, and the work on Split, I’m looking forward to Glass and Jordan Peele‘s, Us. The work by both composer and cinematographer elevated Under the Silver Lake into much more than just another mystery, its up there in my books as a classic neo-noir along with Inherent Vice, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys. Between the eccentric performances, the gorgeous visuals, and the melodic score, the entire film never has a dull moment. There is a heavy attention to detail allowing attentive viewers to pick everything apart from the cinematic homages, the subliminal messaging, and the clues to the grand puzzle. Silver Lake offers for the most part a comedic surrealist trip into the dreamscape that is Los Angeles, but does have bits of action sprinkled throughout. When I think of it, it actually has a lot of the same vibe that the crazy and completely intriguing Southland Tales did, but with a much better team and end result.
I can see many possibly being bored with the film if they have no investment to LA or to Hollywood. Similar to La La Land, the film takes the characters, which allow us to vicariously marvel in the splendor that are the Hollywood landmarks and cultural icons. The plot is thick at surface, but will only go as deep as you are willing to venture and invest into the various mysteries. I very much loved the tone and pacing, paired with a terrifically nuanced performance by Garfield. It’s a very eclectic film, as it effortlessly bounces from set piece to set piece. At one moment, Sam might be having sex with his “causal lover” in his messy single apartment he can’t afford, then he’s attending a typical Hollywood party (it’s exactly what you’re imagining), and in another he is running from a masked-naked killer. It’s all over the place, and there is no determination of what is real and what is imagination, because at its heart, LA is a city where it becomes what you make of it. Now, there are sit-down moments to collect your thoughts and piece together any clues you and Sam may have both found. Conversations with his friends played by the eccentric Jimmi Simpson or the laid back Topher Grace. There is a lot of casual nudity, lots of sexual innuendos, but it’s all part of the world. Beneath the surface, the film provides spontaneously deep conversations that get, with existential pontificating such as, “You ever think you messed up somewhere a long time ago? Like you messed up and are living the worst life because of it…”. But at the same time providing genuine back-and-forth dialogue such as a favourite of mine, discussing the tastefulness of saltine crackers with orange juice. The film also has one of my favourite scenes of the year, filled with a debate on, “Ideologies you thought to have assumed of free will, but are actually subliminal messages.”. The scene includes a flawless transition of various pop culture hits such as: “Crazy Train”, “I Want it that Way”, “Cheers”, “I Wanna Know What Love is”, “Earth Angel”, “Smells like Teen Spirit”, “I Love Rock n’ Roll”, Mozart, “Where is my Mind”, “Salt-N-Pepa”, “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Pinball Wizard”. Every single character in the film has their own unique view on life, and each one of them provides something to the conversation. Like any good noir, the supporting characters rival the uniqueness of the actual protagonist.
Beneath it all, I think Silver Lake will divide some people. There will be those like myself who love it as avid noir fans, there will be those who think it’s nothing but eye-candy, and there are those who can sympathise with the first group regardless of liking it or not. In terms of that third group, I can see a rise in “internet detectives” who while not knowing of film noir, have an unquenchable thirst for solving mysteries. I fit into group A and B. I highly recommend giving this trip of a film a full one or two viewings! Shame on you A24.
As a final and hilarious tip to the ongoing internet investigation of the film, listen to the neighbor’s parrot. Parrot’s are infamous for flying around Echo Park and Silver Lake, so if someone knows the answer to Silver Lake, it’s them…
~ ★★★★½ / 5 ~
BSA & NO END CREDIT SCENE[Awards Worthy: Lead Actor, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Score]
Quickee Film Time
PS – Hobo Slang/Code is awesome! Look into it.