Under the Silver Lake (2018)

First off, I don’t think this review needs spoiler warnings. Because to tell the truth, you can read everything below and the movie still probably won’t make any sense at all to you. That’s because I have a theory, which I will get to in, oh, give or take 1,690 words.

Unlike the vast majority of the world, I hated David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.

Also unlike the vast majority of the world, I loved Under the Silver Lake.

I was prepared to despise it. It’s a movie that is completely and totally made within its own world, completely given over to ego-driven auteurism and pride. But in today’s world of either made quick for streaming films or overly huge blockbusters that have to play as well in Peoria as they do in Peiking, I kind of love that someone spent over $8 million dollars to create a movie that made $45,000 in its first weekend and completely does not give a fuck if you get it or not. This is the kind of movie that demands a scorecard, a map, a Wikipedia page and its own forum on Reddit for you to even come close to scratching the surface and it really feels like it  was made for either just its creator or a small group of mutants who only venture into the sunlight to see if their new blu rays came in the mail.

You know — people like me.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) — a great name for a pop culture obsessed conspiracy whackjob if I ever heard one — lives in Silver Lake where he does nothing. Perhaps he is a scriptwriter trying to make something happen. Who knows? It’s never revealed and it’s not that important. He has promise, but he’s wasted it pining over a lost love who he sees every day on a billboard that says, “I can see clearly now.”

There are a few things that come to our attention: a Dog Killer is on the loose. Nearly every woman in Sam’s building is gorgeous. And one of them, Sarah (Riley Keough, quite literally the granddaughter of the King himself, Elvis Aaron Presley Jr.) finally invites him over after he ogles her (after he’s finished having sex with an unnamed actress who for some reason magically brings him sushi, played by Garfunkel and Oates actress Riki Lindhome).

This is that magic moment of Kismet, the instant meet cute that Hollywood has trained Sam — and all of us — expect. And that’s kind of sort of what happens, as the film leads us along to the rug pull moment when Sarah disappears without a trace, leaving behind graffiti and a box of photos.

Much like a giallo hero who must become a detective or a lovesick puppy dog, Sam feels that he has to save his one true love while of course sleeping with just about every woman put in his path.

This path leads him to elite Hollywood parties where he always knows at least one person and isn’t banned even when he makes a big scene. He follows it to shows by the band Jesus and the Brides of Dracula and performance art affairs with LSD-laced cookies and bars with tombstones of famous dead people.

Of course, that struggling actress who was up for an Oscar last year and now is a prostitute sees something in Sam and wants more than sex. Certainly, that balloon covered artist will instantly fall for him while dancing. It all just adds up. Or does it?

There are so many connections and clues and yet, barely a crime. That all changes when the body of billionaire Jefferson Sevence — who has been missing as we learn in news stories that play throughout the film — is found burned up in a limo with the bodies of three women. And what do they find at the scene? Sarah’s hat.

Sam then contacts the author (Patrick Fischler) of Under the Silver Lake, an underground comic book that reveals the many conspiracies at the heart of this film. The author lives in fear of the Owl Woman, as he feels that the secret he possesses in a cereal box has marked him for death. He’s right. Or he’s killed himself. But there is evidence that shows the Owl Woman creep into his house.

Now, by following the backmasked messages in Jesus and the Brides of Dracula’s (actually Silversun Pickups, a well-known band that calls Silverlake home) three best-known songs, mostly their song “Turning Teeth,” Sam finds the Homeless King (played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow) who shows him an underground bunker that goes from Griffith Park to a supermarket. It’s probably no accident that this scene was filmed in the same location as the end of another transformative movie ready to screw with your brain, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

He undertakes another journey into a gated community, led by the three Brides of Dracula. Yes, this is a movie obsessed with one man surrounded by three women and it will get even more triad obsessed in a minute.

There, he meets the Songwriter, who claims that he’s written every single song that has meant anything to Sam, who has a poster of Kurt Cobain on his wall signed by Frances Bean, of all things. The man continually plays snippets of these songs while laughing that he did it all for money and they have no meaning. Those songs, all played by Ben Crippin Taylor, include:

  • The Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way”
  • “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” from Cheers
  • Foreigner “I Want to Know What Love Is”
  • Joan Jett (actually, this song was originally by Alan Merrill and the Arrows) “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”
  • Harold Faltermeyer “Axel F: Theme from Beverly Hills Cop
  • Iron Butterfly “In a Gadda Da Vida” (a reference to the Garden of Eden)
  • The Penguins “Earth Angel”
  • Ritchie Valens “La Bamba” (the day the music died, if you will)
  • Salt-N-Pepa “Push It”
  • Ozzy Osbourne “Crazy Train”
  • The Who “Pinball Wizard”
  • Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
  • The Pixies “Where Is My Mind?”

Those last two songs are integral to the film. The first is everything about rebellion that Sam held dear, being told that it was something that was a throwaway, a cash grab written between “a blowjob and breakfast.” The second is the song that plays as capitalism is destroyed in Fight Club, a movie that too many people think is some kind of rallying cry for them and them alone before realizing that they’re all part of the same gang of vanilla do-nothings. But here, we learn that even that song was written by an old man at a piano that laughs at anyone who believes in anything.

There are also songs that play in the movie that have major plot points hidden within them, like The Association’s “Never My Love,” a cover of Lulu’s “To Sir with Love,” DJ97’s “Your Woman,” Cornershop’s “Brimful of Ashra” (a song that references the history of Indian film and the longing those movies create) and R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (which takes its name from something a man on the street yelled before attacking Dan Rather).

The old man begins firing a gun at Sam, destroying the instruments of the musicians whose soul he has taken. Finally, our protagonist finds the actual guitar of Kurt Cobain and repeatedly smashes in the head of the old man, as if he were on stage with the Who and Nirvana, both conveniently name-checked in the above list of co-opted bands (notably, The Clash is still safe. Whew.).

Sam then meets the daughter of Jefferson Sevence, Millicent. Of course she falls for him, kissing him in the waters of the Silver Lake as she slips a bracelet from her father onto his wrist before being killed by assassins. If all of this is getting way out of hand and too much for you, stay tuned.

Get this — by combining the bracelet, the map hidden inside the comic book writer’s cereal box and The Legend of Zelda map featured in the first-ever issue of Nintendo Power, Sam finds a location not on any map, where a man and three women wait in a hut.

Basically, the entire conspiracy is all about the select 1% of wealthy men who will take three brides — yeah, there it is again — and bury themselves in the Earth for six months until they ascend like pharaohs. And oh yeah, Sarah is one of Jefferson Sevence’s wives.

Once they went inside their bunker, it was sealed and no one can leave, but Sam can speak to her via videophone. She tells him she did this of her own free will and is at peace. They say goodbye as Sam — and the other four in the room — pass out and are taken away by the Homeless King.

When he awakens, the Homeless King is certain that Sam is the Dog Killer, but Sam’s story of missing his girlfriend and her dog touches him. He lets him go, but says he can’t be sure if they’ll kill him or not.

When he returns back to his home — where he’s been threatened with eviction by his landlord for not paying his lease — he finally meets the old woman with a bird that says something he can’t understand. They sleep together and she reveals that she has no idea what the bird is saying. 

Meanwhile, the police break down his door as he watches from across the apartments, laughing to himself as he smokes and they see the hobo code — which is throughout this film and supposedly It Follows as well — that means “Stay quiet.” Then, the strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies” ends the film.

At this point, I was shocked. I actually loved the movie. Maybe the song helped. Actually, it really did.

There are so many loose ends, like t-shirt codes that add up to BWAR DOG KILR, coded messages using What Three Words and the Copial Cypher, combining orange juice with saltines, Playboy being the gateway drug to men objectifying women, the Dog Killer being someone offing murderers or all women being dogs that men just want to kill, the number 23, Vanna White sending codes to someone via how she looks around and so much more that there’s no way I can understand it all.

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

My theory is that — going back to spoiler warnings — that this is a movie that operates as multiple films sometimes all at once. Therefore, any attempt to make rational sense of it are doomed to failure. In my opinion, those three options are:

It’s a regular movie:

The movie instantly falls apart as a straight-up film. It’s too strange and it has plot holes you can bury a rich man and three wives inside. And I think it’s meant to be such a shaggy dog story, as director David Robert Mitchell told Vulture: “The film is a mystery and there are mysteries inside of that mystery, and some of the characters could be considered mysteries themselves,. Will I explain any of them? No.” He also referred to the movie as a shot across the bow, an intentional f-you.

It’s an exploration of Hollywood itself: 

In that same Vulture article, Mitchell said “It’s a darker, skewed look at the collective consciousness of a city defined by capitalist, misogynistic, patriarchal, superficial values that have led people astray. It’s fascinating to me that people might miss the clues, and I think that says quite a lot about what they want to see rather than what’s being presented.”

He’s also discussed that this movie comes at a certain point in time when it felt like a shadow was growing across America and now, that shadow can be seen everywhere.

It’s also a film that knows the history of Hollywood enough to have all of Sarah’s dialogue in the swimming pool scene come from Marilyn Monroe’s uncompleted final movie, Something’s Got to Give. Just another doomed blonde caught up in the Hollywood machine? Perhaps.

You can also compare it to movies like Inherent Vice and Mulholland Drive, where the search for truth leads into strange corners and perhaps places its characters wished they never went. Which brings us to the final theory:

Sam is an untrustworthy narrator and really crazy:

In an interview with Little White Lies, Mitchell said that a lot of the movie is based on old adventure videogames saying, “There’s an oddness to the way that items and objects exist within the world and you and your character have to work out, do these objects build and equal something? Do they amount to something greater? Or is this toaster just a toaster. Can they become something else? There’s an element of that madness within the movie as well.”

I believe that Sam’s breakup with his girlfriend has sent him into a tailspin. You can really see this when he attacks the two young boys for keying his car and throwing eggs. The way that he tackles and attacks them goes beyond the need for teaching a lesson and simple revenge into outright being a sociopath. And as you may know, sociopaths have no true empathy, which means that his comments about the homeless make much more sense.

That’s not even getting into Vanna White speaking to people through the TV. Or the fact that the origin of the Dog Killer — a man who was spurned by an actress and began killing dogs in retaliation — mirror his life. Does he really need all those biscuits in his pockets?

To me, the major reason why this movie doesn’t take place within our universe is due to one of the major criticisms that its dealt with: this is a movie living within — and obsessed by — the male gaze. Even after having sex with a gorgeous actress, Sam can’t resist peeping on his neighbor. And every woman, no matter what, falls into Sam’s bed. This is a man who hasn’t taken a shower in days, has been sprayed by a skunk and shows up in a white t-shirt and instantly gets told, “I like your shirt,” by one of the most stunning women you’ve ever seen.

He has become the main character in one of the movies that he’d put a poster of on his walls. He’s retreated into a world of fantasy, of noir, of falling for the gorgeous rich woman only to have her killed as a result. The women in this film are merely stock characters: the lost blonde who needs saving, the kooky artist, the redhead hooker with a heart of gold and the woman with an owl for a head. Even when the rich girl dies, she descends in the water just like Janet Wolf on that cover of Playboy from July 1970 that Sam keeps next to his bed.

Oh yeah — about the Owl Woman. She’s not real — instead she’s the symbol for suicide, showing up at the lowest moments of the comic book author’s life, making sense of a death that is often senseless. When she shows up in Sam’s house, she arrives at the moment when he’s at his lowest, having learned that he’s about to be kicked out of his home and forced to change his carefully arranged life of nothingness.

The exact moment that Sam realizes his psychosis is when that Pixies song makes him realize that all of the manufactured Fight Club misogyny is a pose, that this rage has been manufactured by the machine.

He’s also the center of his own universe, a place where the magazines of his youth and the movies he love mean more to him than anyone else because they’re his. If you think this movie doesn’t hit way to close to home…

Mitchell told mubi.com that, the movie is at heart “a mystery… it’s a mystery on multiple levels: about the journey this character takes, and then also the mystery of this character. But essentially it’s a fabrication.”

But then again, as the performance artist says, “There’s nothing to solve. It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” At the same time that a character derides “an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens,” the truth is that movie celebrates and gives that same audience something new to obsess over.

I’ve often said that I’d rather have an interesting movie that’s a complete mess than a boring piece of dreck that’s tied up with a nice bow. Never has that statement been truer than this film.

It’s not for everybody. In fact, I’m uncertain who would like it or get it other than me. Which kind of makes me exactly the same kind of person this film is celebrating. Or making fun of. Or both. Who can really say?

8 thoughts on “Under the Silver Lake (2018)

  1. I am guessing the large budget is because of the music licensing . . . but it seems this movie NEEDS the songs to develop it’s characters and push it’s plot (I dig it!), so it’s a slippery slope when needing particular tunes–and it’s not just for atmosphere, like a Tarantino or Scorcese flick.


  2. I watched the trailer three times. Pairing that with your review . . . there is something magical here. Very magical. It actually makes me sad this wasn’t successful. This is total opposite of It Follows in terms of success. You’ve got Andrew Garfield, who is great in everything. David’s a man of vision. He rose above the bloodbath mentality of horror. What happened here? Hey, at least It Follows got David clout and he was able to make his passion project.


  3. Yea! It was on cable VOD! Shocked!

    Okay. I can see why this movie is so polarizing. There is no middle ground or “meh” with this: either you love it or hate.

    I loved it. Right up my alley. See you at the corner of “That’s F’d Up” and Vine. I’m thinking of The Dark Backward, Romero’s Bruiser, and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich.


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