Listing all of the influences of Under the Silver Lake would be impossible. There’s no labyrinth to wander through in order to find them, as David Robert Mitchell not only clearly presents them all, but encourages you to recognize them, often stating who or what or where they are himself. It’s Marilyn in the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, it’s James Dean at the Griffith Observatory, it’s in the hard-luck men and the odd mysteries of Hawks, Hitchcock, De Palma, Kubrick, Polanski, Altman, Pynchon, of men whose inspirations are the men who were inspired by the men before them, whether they’re writers or filmmakers or actors or musicians.
We identify with what we see and try to recreate that, whether it’s collecting plaster face molds of famous stars or making a VHS copy of a film you saw on TCM. Everything is collectible, everything is open to interpretation, everything can be appropriated, nothing is original. And guess what? There’s nothing really wrong with that. Every inch of our media landscape, of what we consider as culture, is built upon the bones of something, or someone, else. Just as Mitchell’s protagonist, Sam (Andrew Garfield), builds upon the clues given to him by everyone around him, from the Shooting Star (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) who speaks of house parties and songwriters to the Comic Man (Patrick Fischler) whose house is lined with plaster masks of famous actors and tells far-fetched tales that are hard to believe.
But stories become truth. Our cultural landscape does the work of spreading these stories for those who need a story spread. These stories arrive in a news broadcast that interrupts (but doesn’t necessarily end) a casual hook-up. They snowball from a minor story to a massive conspiracy, showcasing how a missing dog poster can make one question a coyote digging through trash and how that ties into a widespread fear of taking your dog out and results in giant spray-painted warning signs: BEWARE THE DOG KILLER.
Sam himself is a coyote, aimlessly wandering in the landscape that is Silver Lake, following scraps and preying on others to satiate his need to exist. Garfield’s marvelous performance—which could be easily mistaken as just another shaggy dog that thinks of himself as a private eye but subtly reveals there are layers to Sam’s fixations and entitlement—goes hand in hand with the visual metaphor of said animal. There’s charm and beauty in such a creature, but there’s a menace and danger lurking beneath the shag. His attempts to slink around are sometimes laughable and his fear at the human-like shadows in the night are appropriate, but he’s a wily figure through and through.
The natural curiosity and relentless force of the coyote is what drives every minute of Under the Silver Lake. It’s what leads Sam down a number of fascinating paths that aren’t intended to make him grow as a person. After all, who expects the protagonist of a noir narrative to end up in a better place than he started? There’s no subversion of those rules to be made because Sam, as a character, is trapped in his routine, in his ambivalence, in being an empty shell of a human being and a man who exploits those around him (while believing that others are out to get him). He’s as pathetic as he is dangerous, surrounded by individuals he views solely as desirable objects or a means to get ahead, and Mitchell is practically shouting that the entire film. The subversion, then, must exist beyond that simple narrative thread.
And Mitchell’s reaching, sprawling movie—marvelously shot by Mike Gioulakis, who creates a unique portrait of a city that’s been filmed to death without ever feeling derivative of those films—throws its protagonist and the viewer all over Silver Lake, all throughout the city’s odd histories and parties and fabricated locations that feel familiar because we’ve seen them interpreted on screen a thousand different ways. It’s the kind of endlessly referential work that some might rightfully find obnoxious, so morbidly fascinated with the way we fetishize the past that it nearly ends up becoming the same thing it’s critiquing.
The characters of Under the Silver Lake exist to oscillate between indifference and obsession. We as a culture ingest art until we’re numb, unable to recognize any of the themes within, until the art that’s being created is an empty shell of its past incarnations. It’s what leads to the nostalgia porn that Netflix and its algorithm thrive off of, leading to a thousand listicles about what 80s movie Stranger Things knocked off this season. It’s what creates the kind of art designed for people like Sam to break down into clues instead of themes, Easter eggs instead of substance; the folks angry that Lost didn’t answer every question it introduced or that complain about Westworldbeing too predictable after breaking down every plot point after one episode.
As noted earlier, Mitchell himself references the filmmakers on numerous levels—Vertigo and Rear Window run deep in the film’s blood and De Palma’s constant fascination with modernizing Hitchcock’s voyeurism is best explored in a stunning drone scene—but none is as shameless as when Sam steps aside to reveal a tombstone with Alfred Hitchcock’s name on it and immediately cuts to a split diopter shot of Sam’s face and the film that’s playing behind him. It’s at once critical (the death of Hitchcock gave way to the rise of De Palma) and loving (De Palma’s entire oeuvre couldn’t exist without Hitchcock), conscious of the way texts are appropriated and reimagined. We use the visual language of the past to create the visual language of the future. The personalities we admire from our past become the way we model our own personas; we’re obsessed with regurgitating cinema’s history, whether or not we’re aware of it. It’s why the film playing in the graveyard is Mitchell’s own debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (itself aware that everything in it has been done before). He built this film upon past works and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging or paying tribute to that.
The characters of Under the Silver Lake are varied in their self-awareness. Sam has absolutely none; he’s willing to buy into everything he’s told as long as it gets him ahead in his journey. Sam’s driving force is his obsession with Sarah (Riley Keough), the woman he met in his apartment complex who suddenly disappeared after their brief encounter. His inability to let go of this Sarah, whom he knew for mere hours after spying on her (and another woman) in the pool, is a clear sign from the get-go that he has a toxic relationship with women. His mother is faceless, a voice that solely exists to bring up Janet Gaynor. The women who walk the streets of Silver Lake for auditions in garages are nothing but shallow bodies to him. He looks down on the actresses and performers who moonlight as sex workers, never considering their ambitions beyond what (and who) they’ve done.
Even Sarah exists as a fantasy. Keough’s performance both challenges and taps into the way classic Hollywood viewed women. In Sam’s eyes, women amount only to what they’re selling and how they can provide him with the satisfaction he desires. In an especially critical move, Mitchell pairs every single instance of sexual pleasure for Sam with something unsettling, highlighting his desensitization to tragedy and perverse morbidity. It’s fucking while the news speaks of a missing and possibly dead man. It’s masturbating to porn magazines and including an image of two women mourning the death of a loved one. It’s having drone footage of a disrobing woman introduce the possibility of titillation only to have the camera close in on her crying, distressed face. The list of ways he emphasizes this in the film goes on and on.
Men, then, offer musings that Sam either accepts in good faith or rejects violently, as opposed to the women he chooses to dismiss or obsess over (less worthy of respect, but more useful for pleasure or distraction). He bashes in the skull of the Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb)—whose sole scene involves the piano playing of hit singles that must have cost a fortune to include in the film—for daring to claim that all the art Sam loves in the world comes from the same anonymous figure instead of his idols. Even the mere suggestion that Kurt Cobain didn’t write “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (an untrue statement, but a triggering one) is like a bullet straight in the chest for the kind of man who thinks he knows everything, who thinks the men he idolizes are flawless creative geniuses. He acts out similarly against a musician who seems to be the It Boy around town, an extension of his entitlement that presents itself as jealousy that this artist has the success, the money, and the women that he doesn’t.
His volatility towards those who make him insecure of his views extends past the rich and towards the homeless. Sam rants about them being poltergeists that prey on the living when he himself embodies those qualities more than anyone else on screen. On the verge of becoming homeless himself (five days from eviction at the start of the film), this hatred comes across as a sort of unaware self-loathing, intriguingly paired with his suicidal ideation. The Owl Lady, brought into existence from the Comic Man’s zines, are a literalization of those thoughts; a spectre not unlike those from It Follows, masked but nude, and eerily wandering, ready to destroy the men whose paranoia consumes them.
Paranoia is not an uncommon feature for film noir and any number of filmmakers have mined that territory well. Disasterpeace’s original score is where this features most prominently, a striking emulation of some of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores designed to instill a sense of dizzied reality. Patrick Fischler (who many will recognize from David Lynch’s own brilliant Los Angeles tale Mulholland Drive) also reeks paranoia from every pore and his sensibilities extend to Sam as soon as they meet, turning him into the kind of man who sees signs everywhere he goes. The Comic Man is a reflection of who Sam could become: a shut-in terrified of his own mind and extending that fear to those around him. His obsession is with the subliminal, with finding meaningful text in everything from records and sexualized advertisements to cereal box maps and video game magazines.
As Topher Grace’s Bar Buddy notes, “There’s an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens. Used to be a hundred years ago, y’know, any moron could kind of wander into the woods and look behind a rock or some shit and discover some cool new thing. Where’s the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery because there’s none left.”
But is there anything truly different between those generations? Between the men who would turn a corner and colonize a nation simply because they landed on it and the men who expect women who show the faintest sign of interest to be around to fawn over them the next day? For all that Mitchell indulges in, leaving Easter eggs littered through Silver Lake for fools to make Reddit threads trying to catch ‘em all, his thesis seems clear: these men have always existed and will never change, even when given the opportunity to attain self-actualization. Put simply, these men are worthless.
While much of the film’s negative criticism has noted that the film has sympathy for Sam, it’s clear that Mitchell is painting a negative picture of the character, even while presenting the film through his eyes. Sam’s closer to the conspiracy theorists of Room 237 and the men who think a woman with headphones glancing at them is enough interest to pursue this opportunity. Hell, he’d probably be an incel if he wasn’t getting fucked so much. It’s half-entitlement, half-obsession, and filtering this modern man through film noir tropes exposes just how flawed their manner of thinking sometimes was. A noir anti-hero could get away with smacking a kid upside the head, but when Sam beats up some kids who were playing pranks on folks in the neighborhood, there’s an uncomfortable brutality to every punch.
So one could mistake Under the Silver Lake for sympathizing with its protagonist if it had ended at the two-hour mark (just after one of its most emotionally compelling scenes, designed to betray the viewer into believing a man like this is capable of change and self-actualization) instead of taking the viewer further below the surface. But it doesn’t. It shows that a coyote, when trapped, will do anything it can to escape, just as man will lie, cheat, and steal to survive, even if that means existing in a state of complacency for the rest of one’s life. There is no conclusion for men like Sam, only an ongoing cycle of emulating his idols, no matter how much of a fuck-up he is. Silver Lake is his purgatory, inescapable but bearable, and boy is it a fun place to be trapped in.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell; written by David Robert Mitchell; starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Riki Lindhome, Zosia Mamet, Grace Van Patten, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Sydney Sweeney, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb, and Callie Hernandez. 139 minutes.
Under the Silver Lake is now available on demand.