During a pivotal moment of Under the Silver Lake, the film’s protagonist, Sam, played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield, encounters a mysterious songwriter who tells him that every song humans connect with is meaningless. This is also director David Robert Mitchell telling us that every red herring he’s thrown our way is just as meaningless as those songs. By trying to solve his mystery, we are doing nothing more than proving the film’s central thesis right: We over-analyze to make our lives more interesting than they are.
Under the Silver Lake follows Sam, a young loser in Los Angeles. After he hooks up with a neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), she mysteriously disappears. As Sam scrambles to find her, he discovers strange conspiracies and hidden messages in music, women wearing owl masks, and homeless people.
After mixed reviews from critics out of the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s release was delayed twice, before it was eventually dumped on video-on-demand. If a lack of confidence in the finished product was the issue, it makes sense considering how surreal and alienating it will be for most viewers. However, it’s a shame to see a film as unapologetically bold and unique as this swept under the rug.
Mitchell has crafted a brilliantly madcap film noir that takes notes from both Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. It’s Hitchcockian in smaller moments, such as Sam spying on his neighbors, which harkens back to Rear Window. However, the bulk of the influence is in Richard Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace’s, incredible score, which is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s collaborations with the master of suspense. The Lynchian influence often creeps through when the film is at its most surreal or its most macabre, akin to Blue Velvet.
Mitchell uses film noir conventions and an epic sprawling mystery to make a statement about his protagonist; similar in vein to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Sam is our unreliable (and perhaps unstable) narrator over the course of the film. He’s an unemployed creep, who spends more time spying on women and reading weird comics than doing anything productive. His actions are never justified by Mitchell—who also leaves hints that Sam’s inferences in his search for Sarah are flawed at best—and that perhaps the “conspiracies” he uncovers aren’t worth obsessing over.
Mitchell also creates a parallel between Sam’s unraveling of the mystery and the way we interpret it. He is constantly throwing clues our way, no matter how surreal, expecting us to create our own theories in the same vein as Sam. However, Mitchell is also constantly providing hints that we may be digging too deep into this, and while this may lead to disappointment for many, it will certainly be a rewarding pay off for those with the patience and willingness to see beyond the mystery. Whether or not this film works depends entirely on the viewer’s taste and willingness to submit to Mitchell’s will. However, for those who are up for something that’s both daring and wild with a unique twist on the film noir, Under the Silver Lake is a fascinatingly unforgettable experience.