Film: Under the Silver Lake

I can’t say I whole-heartedly loved Under the Silver Lake (2018), but for me it was the perfect film for the moment. A mesmerizing, confused mess that feels new-fangled and old-fashioned simultaneously, it’s a darkly comic, fantastical conspiracy thriller that muses on the subliminal influences of pop culture and the futility of creative ambition in a late-capitalist society. Or, well, something like that? Anyway, it’s the right kind of weird for my flailing inner self during the perpetual now of  endless pandemic lockdown.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is an aimless ne’er-do-well living in an East Los Angeles apartment complex, on the verge of eviction but living in denial of it. Loitering through life, Sam’s slimy habit of spying on women in the courtyard introduces him to an attractive new neighbor named Sarah (Riley Keough), with whom he makes an unexpected connection. The next morning, however, Sarah disappears; her fully furnished apartment is suddenly empty, and she and her roommates have vanished. Sam investigates, and his efforts lead him on a mysterious journey through a strange, clandestine world of LA creatives to uncover bizarre urban lore and shocking cosmic conspiracies.

From the start, Under the Silver Lake works a compelling, hypnotic spell. Its eerie magnetism was enough to sustain me through through film’s most glaring problems: its sexist, male-gazey atmosphere, and Sam’s inherent unlikability. It’s a testament to Garfield’s charisma that Sam’s lazy, leering womanizer remains watchable despite his sleazy behavior. As Sam navigates a weird urban labyrinth full of beautiful women who are inexplicably interested in him, it’s hard not to accuse the director of having his cake and eating it, too; he may be making sly commentary on the superficiality of the LA creative set, but he’s also indulging in garden-variety Hollywood exploitation.

Depending on your tolerance for this issue, there’s breathtaking film-making technique on display here. Under the Silver Lake’s tone is occasionally as crass as a contemporary sex farce, but its look and feel are gorgeous, executed with the compositional finesse of Alfred Hitchcock and the quirky, unsettling ambience of David Lynch. (Rear Window and Mulholland Drive strike me as specific, direct influences.) The atmosphere is enhanced exponentially by a brilliant old-fashioned score by Disasterpeace, which helps lend the grungy streets of modern LA a classic feel, ands adds the old-school Hollywood vibe to which the film aspires. Meanwhile, the plot leads Sam through a cryptic, obfuscatory labyrinth that connects enough dots to feel like it’s adding up, even as it leaves everything nebulous and mysterious. In some small way, it scratches that Lodge 49 itch, stitching quirky continuity clues into its urban fantasy backdrop.

In a way, Under the Silver Lake is a frustrating film, because it might have been a masterpiece if it hadn’t stepped on its potential with both annoying, problematic elements and unnecessarily erratic narrative decisions. But it’s still an intriguingly crafted film thats take the viewer to unexpected places, and I expect it’s likely to lure a devoted cult following.

Scroll to Top