“Used to be, a hundred years ago, you know, any moron could kinda wander into the woods and look behind a rock or s–t and discover some cool new thing, you know? Not anymore. Where’s the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery ‘cause there’s none left.”
These musings come from Under the Silver Lake’s nameless supporting character, “Bar Buddy,” a hilariously expositional, aging hipster played by Topher Grace. His half-baked lamentation refers to video games and secret codes, but could easily pertain to the current state of film noir, a half-dead genre survived only by descendants like neo-noir, science fiction noir, and (seen here) stoner noir.
When I first saw Under the Silver Lake, I’d never heard of a surrealist-stoner-noir and assumed, like Bar Buddy, that mysteries like this just didn’t exist. After finding the laundry list of films that director David Robert Mitchell took inspiration from, his latest creation started to make sense.
The film centers on Sam, a deadbeat womanizer and somewhat entitled conspiracy theorist, played by Andrew Garfield with just enough charm to counteract the character’s unsavory qualities. He’s unemployed, living in a sizable apartment, and drifting through life with no purpose. The opening shot features Sam in a coffee shop, staring at a woman trying to scrub some ominous graffiti off the window. It’s unclear whether his interest is in the message on the window, reading “Beware the Dog Killer,” or the woman. So begins the film’s recurring conflation of sexuality and mystery as Sam obsessively searches Los Angeles for Sarah, a girl he barely knows, uncovering a dozen or so conspiracies in the process. Sarah (Riley Keough) is portrayed as a glowing, old-style Hollywood beauty, both gentle and mysterious. The film here plays with an archetypal view of the opposite sex as the unknowable, mystical, and bewildering other, with Sarah as its central femme fatale. As Sam tours the streets of LA, crashing eccentric parties and solving codes in pop songs, he tries to answer numerous questions about mythic killers and Illuminati-esque puppet masters, but also a more personal one: Why did Sarah leave?
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Ironically, in Sam’s quest to solve this puzzle, he ends up pursuing several other women, often for both information and sex. As the film contains much nudity and cinematography that emulates Sam’s objectifying perspective, many critics have been quick to note its “male gaze,” a phrase that a passing character even uses to describe the whole city. Hollywood is portrayed as a place that uses women for a time, and then discards them. Up and coming actresses are also call girls at a company called “Shooting Star,” whose title evokes a brief stint of blazing light and attention before burnout and destruction. One woman’s murder even mirrors the cover of a Playboy magazine in the film, drawing a parallel between objectifying women and destroying them.
Additionally, the film’s male gaze often portrays sorrow, rather than sensuality. Bar Buddy spies on a woman with his drone, watching through her window as she sits down and begins to undress, but then breaks down and cries about something that’s never explained. The reaction of a billionaire’s daughter to news of her father’s death is filmed in painful, but beautiful slow motion as Sam watches from a distance. He doesn’t understand her, but wants somehow to help. Andrew Garfield described the character as a sort of “Travis Bickle,” who has convinced himself that he’s going to save the city and all the women in it. For Sam, the idea that they wouldn’t want help is beyond him, with their criticism sometimes just sounding like dog barks to him. The strains between the sexes are further accentuated by the “Owl’s Kiss,” a phantom-like, nude woman who slips into houses at night, seduces people, and murders them. Just as pornography damages those photographed and objectified, so too does it destroy those who look on it with lust. Film noir, of course, puts an emphasis on the “deadly” in the seven deadly sins.
While it would be a stretch to call the ending redemptive, there are a few moments of sincerity, grace, and hope sprinkled throughout. Sam has a moment of connection with another human being and comes to terms with the past heartbreak that drove him into joblessness, lethargy, and emotional emptiness. Timothy Lawrence pointed out that the false messiah, a blasphemous rock star calling himself “Jesus,” (Luke Baines) is supplanted by a truer Christ-type in the shape of the “Homeless King” (David Yow), who brings brings Sam to face his mistakes and move past them.
And yet, the scene that best represents the ethos of Under the Silver Lake comes with much less sentimentality. In the music room of a hidden away mansion, Sam discovers an ancient master Songwriter (Jeremy Bob) who secretly composed every socially significant piece of music – from “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Sam is distraught by the realization that every song that ever meant something to him, through his childhood, teens, and adulthood, wasn’t actually a sincere creation of art, but a meaningless instrument of manipulation by powerful, unseen elites. Sam cares because he believes there’s objective meaning to art, defined by its creator.
The two get in a fight that culminates in Sam bashing the Songwriter’s head in with Kurt Cobain’s Fender Mustang guitar, blood splattering across his crazed, passionate face. Though Sam realizes that his own musical idols are puppets, he still uses a symbol of them to destroy the puppet master. This harkens back to the opening shot, where “Beware the Dog Killer” is written on a window, so that seeing the reverse of it from the inside suggests a warning against the “God Killer.” Just as Nietzsche was wary of the consequences of killing God and removing objective moral standards from the world, so too is there a suggestion that Sam should be wary of falling into nihilism, now that he’s killed the creator of all the pop songs that gave his life meaning.
And yet, there is some hope. Sitting is his apartment at the end of the film, waiting to be evicted, Sam watches a dubbed version of Seventh Heaven, sent on VHS from his mother, and seems to take encouragement from the film’s exhortation to “Never look down! Always look up!” From an ethical standpoint, Sam hasn’t changed at all. And yet, he’s come back to believing art has meaning, and might someday realize that the world has meaning too. The cynicism of film noir prevails, but the nihilism is rejected.
Under the Silver Lake is a curious beast. The ideas it critiques are often the same ones it indulges in. It grasps at a dozen or so themes at once, several of which aren’t even mentioned here, so that analyzing its message feels like decoding an impossible conspiracy. Its slow pace, over-the-top tone, and scatterbrained, fantasy story has already divided audiences into extreme reactions of love and hate, which is appropriate for a film so unapologetic and difficult to interpret. Though the film has been a commercial failure, those who crave mystery will find much to uncover here, and may realize that there’s plenty of mystery and meaning left in the real world too.