Any remotely devoted Nirvana fan will recognize the lines “Just because you’re paranoid/Don’t mean they’re not after you” from the song “Territorial Pissings” off their album Nevermind. The two lines make up one verse; the chorus is another repeated set of lines: “Gotta find a way, find a way, when I’m there/Gotta find a way, a better way, I’d better wait!” The first two lines, the ones about paranoia, are a tweaked version of text from Joseph Heller’s war satire Catch-22; the second two lines are a demand to get away from this place and find a way out—but with a hint of laziness. “When I’m there.” “I’d better wait.” What is Kurt Cobain waiting for? What’s holding him back? What’s pushing him forward?
Lift that narrative from Cobain’s “Territorial Pissings” and hover it above Under the Silver Lake and you’ll sense the song’s shadow—its frenzy and its suspicion—making its imprint upon David Robert Mitchell’s film, his follow-up to It Follows. Remember that this film was supposed to come out last year? It was! A24 gave Under the Silver Lake two different release dates in 2018, first June and then December, and then basically buried it in April by primarily releasing it on VOD. Why? I wish I could tell you why! I have no answers!
This movie is a twisty and delirious fever dream, a movie that explores the extreme weirdness of Los Angeles and our obsession with conspiracy theories, a movie that taps into the wavelengths of David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson. It is often wickedly funny. It is intermittently nightmarish. It features an excellent performance from Andrew Garfield, one that veers between The Dude and Patrick Bateman. It includes little winks and nods to other films about LA, to Old Hollywood, to the traditions of the noir genre. For a certain type of cinema fan, Under the Silver Lake could become a cult favorite, and I guess it at least being available on VOD means you can watch it at home? No excuses!
David Robert Mitchell's #UnderTheSilverLake opens in select theaters this weekend. Q&As with Andrew G. and DRM at Arclight Hollywood Fri/Sat! Crack the code 6̶/̶2̶2̶/̶1̶8̶ 1̶2̶/̶7̶/̶1̶8̶ 4͙/͙1͙9͙/͙1͙9͙ pic.twitter.com/smun00s8tP— A24 (@A24) April 17, 2019
(And no, I don’t think all this release date weirdness is a meta thing, like A24 is speaking to the spirit of Under the Silver Lake by wonkily handling its rollout. Crossing out the previous release dates and pretending that was all part of some synergy with the film itself? This tweet is embarrassing to me.)
Under the Silver Lake centers its increasingly sprawling narrative on 33-year-old Sam (Garfield), a dude living his life in a constant weed haze. Weird things happen all around him, and he reacts to them with a mixture of disinterest and bemusement: Someone has spray-painted BEWARE THE DOG KILLER in huge black letters on the window of his local coffee shop. A squirrel plummets to its death in front of him as he walks home, and almost seems to reach a paw out to him in its final moments. His apartment is covered wall to wall in classic movie posters—and a poster of Nirvana’s Cobain hanging over his bed—and with stacks of magazines and scribbled pages of his own design littering the floor. An eviction notice decorates the front door—he has five days to pay the rent. He uses binoculars to spy on the neighbor who does everything in her apartment topless, including feeding the birds who live on her balcony; he can never figure out the phrase that the woman’s parrot is endlessly repeating. A series of mini-mysteries surround him, puzzles he can never quite figure out but that he’s increasingly desperate to unravel.
Into his life waltzes Sarah (Riley Keough), in a white bikini and a white hat and toting a white dog and a white boombox, laying out at his apartment building’s swimming pool. He’s never seen her before, but she lives in a unit below his, and soon they cross paths. They smoke weed in her bedroom. They watch a movie, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire; Sarah has dolls of the three primary characters played by Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable. But all of a sudden Sam is ushered out, passing a mysterious bearded man in a pirate hat on his way from the apartment—and the next day, the place is abandoned. Sarah and her roommates are gone, with nothing left behind but a shoebox with Sarah’s three dolls, a few other trinkets, and a Polaroid picture of her, seemingly from the day she and Sam spent together.
Where did Sarah go? It’s a question to which Sam doesn’t have an answer, and so he latches onto it, devotes himself to figuring out, applying his obsessive nature to solving what he is certain is a mystery. The mystery then broadens, expands, becomes something more akin to a conspiracy. People of all walks of life become involved: a local band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, which is hitting it big; two women Sam sees in an indie film being screened in his neighborhood; another woman who is a performance artist and who invites Sam to join her at an underground venue called the Crypt Club, where people sit around tables shaped like celebrities’ gravestones; a zine creator who has outfitted his home with rows of unbelievably creepy “life masks,” resin casts of people’s faces as they lived. Each of them giving Sam a little something to go on, another clue.
Nearly everyone Sam meets wants to be famous or wants to at least be close to fame, and so that means money, absurd amounts of money, and people who will do anything for it or anything to keep it. Murder. Kidnapping. And inexplicable events and concepts pop up that may have nothing to do with Sam at all: someone is killing people’s dogs; a billionaire has disappeared; there’s talk of a “longstanding American cult” with strange occult ties burrowed inside Los Angeles.
And for Sam, all of it seems connected, and he just needs to crack the code: “I think it’s fucking ridiculous to assume that the media has just one purpose, right?” he desperately asks the actress he’s hooking up with (Riki Lindhome, who works a wonderful array of incredulous reactions). What is going on? Where did Sarah go? And can Sam figure it all out?
Under the Silver Lake does a few things exceptionally well: It nails the incongruous elements of Los Angeles, the disgusting wealth and the horrendous poverty, the way everyone seems to be performing something, the lengths to which people will go to convince themselves of their own relevance. It is that final point that defines Sam’s arc, and that Mitchell succeeds at alternately building up and cutting down. The movie’s sense of humor is simultaneously self-aware and unabashedly nasty: The actress Sam is sleeping with comments that his apartment smells funky, which you assume to be because of all the weed, but Sam explains it away by saying there are a lot of skunks in Los Angeles—and later on, a skunk sprays him in the face, marking him with that revolting odor for the rest of the film. A character played by Patrick Fischler seems to be a continuation of his role from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and when looking over his array of bizarre items, he sighs, “I really need to get a family”—and then follows it up with “So I have someone to leave these to.” The film specializes in these moments, that seem to go one way and then at the last moment zag in a diversion, and they give the film a stream-of-consciousness feel that never lags, even with the 140-minute run time. Mitchell’s script and direction never waver, and DP Mike Gioulakis (who also shot It Follows, as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass and Split and Jordan Peele’s Us) composes beautiful shots that emphasize Sam’s solitary journey, from crawling in a narrow series of tunnels to walking up a winding path toward a gargantuan mansion to scurrying in the dark toward his apartment building, trying to evade a dark silhouette in pursuit.
But is Sam a hero? Under the Silver Lake does the smart thing by making him sympathetic in his questioning of our reality and his need to feel grounded within it, but does the even smarter thing by underlining how shared his feelings of isolation are, and how his reactions to them are what tilt him toward villainhood. Garfield gives the character a relatable fear and indignation coupled with a strong sense of entitlement; he’s not exactly toxic masculinity made flesh, but he exhibits all the characteristics of someone who thinks they deserve better than they received. He’s prone to bursts of violence. He sleeps with every woman who proposes it. (The film absolutely fails at crafting any female characters of note, by the way, but I think this is less because of a sexism within the film and more because no one in this narrative matters as much as Sam.) His friends, played hilariously by Jimmi Simpson and Topher Grace, seem to have nothing in common with him. Everyone is just using each other, using pop culture as a means to connect, finding nothing deeper than surface-level similarities. A scene at that Crypt Club, with Sam dancing his heart out to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is heartbreaking in its exuberance and loneliness.
What Under the Silver Lake poses is an essential query for our time, when we’re all self-regulated into various fandoms based on our movie and TV and music interests, and when accusations of “fake news” are thrown around all the time and fringe theorists are experiencing unprecedented popularity, and when the mega-rich seem to be living in their own reality, separate from ours: What are we owed? From the creators, who craft the work we scour for hidden clues and messages and meanings? From the people in power, who create the system to benefit themselves most? And why do they owe us? What makes them worthy initially, and what makes us not?
“Who’s not being followed these days?” someone wonders in Under the Silver Lake; “We crave mystery because there’s none left,” opines someone else. Those two ideas, an everyday acceptance of paranoia and a rabidly unshakable curiosity, shape Under the Silver Lake into a fever-dream noir masquerading as a drugged-out trip, a criticism of masculine entitlement that uses the tricks of a twisty crime thriller to raise questions about the peculiarities of life—what we’ve lost, what we’ve found, and what we don’t even know we’re missing.
Under the Silver Lake is available on VOD.
Header Image Source: YouTube/Under the Silver Lake