Evaluating Under the Silver Lake is as confounding as the conundrums that central character Sam faces. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell has aimed at a parodic 50s noir comedy, bordering on the surreal. Or has he? It’s difficult to ascertain whether or not the film knows how ridiculous it is or is naively aiming for something else.
Clearly paying homage to classic mysteries like Vertigo and The Third Man (there’s even a Psycho poster in Sam’s apartment and, later, headstones with “Hitchcock” and “Wells” etched into them in exaggerated block letters), Silver Lake centres on Andrew Garfield‘s waste-of-space protagonist. After the disappearance of a girl in his apartment complex, he investigates, eventually tumbling into a spiral of inexplicable events and characters. The Hollywood setting is key as Sam becomes convinced an Illuminati-type organisation are subliminally influencing the world through films and advertisements.
The scene fades and ominous 1950s horn-laden score create both classic familiarity as well as a sense of uneasy intrigue. However, these features jar awkwardly with the film’s otherwise 90s/00s costume and setting. The diegetic music creates another strange juxtaposition on top of this, favouring 90s Britpop and guitar-laden grunge. The acting choices, too, are confusing. Garfield pulls off the clumsy stoner act, but other performers only come across as cheesy and vacuous. It all results in a mish-mashed sense of uncertainty which appears too deliberate to be a mistake. It seems that Mitchell is pushing current popular film convention in an attempt to unsettle and amuse the audience, as well as to establish his own brand of auteurism.
However, the film is successful in that it engages us with its bizarre imagery and snowballing central enigma. Our sensitivities are tested too. In one early scene, Sam beats up a group of pre-teen vandals, making us squirm. Later, dogs are mutilated, skulls are smashed in, vibrators are sniffed and one of Sam’s nightmares about an infamous dog killer on the loose is grotesque and genuinely disturbing – unsurprising since the director found success with 2014 horror hit It Follows.
On a sour note, the film doesn’t seem aware of its outdated sexism. Sam is a creepy pervert. He regularly spies on a topless neighbour with binoculars (a Rear Window reference, surely) and only seems interested in talking to women who he’s drooled over first, usually via lingering closeups of body parts. The problem for contemporary audiences might be that there’s never any comeuppance for this behaviour. Sam is portrayed as an ordinary “dude” who we are encouraged to laugh with and root for, and the female characters all meet the film’s end without satisfactory resolutions.
You will re-evaluate your impressions of Silver Lake at least ten times throughout its duration. It’s a film that desperately wants to garner cult following. And probably will. However, it’s not quite the Donnie Darko it is forcing itself to be.