What exactly is Under the Silver Lake?

This confounding and genre-defying experience in storytelling and cinema-going have been billed as a film that you’ll either love or hate. But as it goes with films labeled this way, maybe the love and hate will divide even the individual viewer. There are parts to love, there are parts to hate, and it’s up to each viewer as to how much this multifaceted piece works for them, as this Rorschach test of a film is destined to finely divide audiences more sharply than any other this year. Under the Silver Lake has semblances of masterly craft, but it’s also unfortunately disjointed, though it has moments that are good on their own, but bad within the story’s context (and vice versa) – the good and the bad keep stacking up upon one another, but it’s ultimately the good that triumphs.

The easiest way to sum it up is it’s a neo-noir film about Sam (Andrew Garfield) who goes looking for his neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) after she mysteriously goes missing after they first spend a night together – this opening twenty-minute set-up informs the rest of the film’s two hours, showing the journey of this unemployed and overly-curious dude as he gets caught up in a wide range of theories and tangents as to what kind of fate she ended up in and what kind of larger conspiracy she’s part of (if at all).

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There’s quite a bit after this central point to spoil, despite some of the revelations Sam stumbles upon varying in obscurity and clarity. But writer-director David Robert Mitchell has gone above and beyond crafting a tale that intersperses the dark underbelly of LA’s youth culture and the grand ubiquity of pop culture, all the while unapologetically canvassing all this directly through Sam’s male gaze, as if he’s being guided through this whole journey by his penis.

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Robert Mitchell’s previous film, It Follows, was also clearly obsessed with sex in its STD-metaphor concept, but sex and lust seemed like a guilt-trip there, whereas it’s more of curiosity here. Sarah appears to Sam very much like a fantasy of what a heterosexual twenty-something dude would want – a highly attractive blonde lady living next door, spending her down-time sun-bathing in scant expensive outfits, and she even has a cute dog. But she is clearly rendered as a fantasy, as she appears in one making the exact same poses as Marilyn Monroe in her last film Something’s Got to Give (1962), which was never finished or released due to her unexpected death.

This film is cineliterate and it doesn’t mind showing it, with clear references to the likes of Vertigo to Rear Window to The Long Goodbye and to the more recent Inherent Vice. It owes a debt to the films before it because it’s so culturally minded, it’s taken such a vast array of influences and blended them together in this highly unique experience that could maybe be billed as neo-neo-noir.

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Much respect to Robert Mitchell, following up his debut horror hit It Follows with something far less safe and more polarising. Contrasted with that film’s simple premise and simple execution, he has made his sophomore film something that is opposed to his debut, instead of trying similar tricks.

Towards the films elongated conclusion(s) in my screening, I could hear an older couple behind me getting agitated, calling it “crap” and “nonsense.” Just like an identical experience I had with Under the Skin, this film clearly is not going to please everyone. If this is a crowd-pleaser, it has a very small crowd in mind, but it’s one I’m at least, for the most part, a part of.

Under the Silver Lake Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes