This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Guus Van der Peet’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
We crave mystery because there’s not enough.
-Under the Silver Lake
Under the Silver Lake is one of those films where the director decided to throw everything against the wall to see what would stick… only to watch in awe as somehow everything stayed glued to the wall. I see a lot of people calling this film overambitious and messy. Yes, it is ambitious – very, very ambitious. Mitchell has obviously put every crazy, LSD-induced idea that went through his head together in his sophomore feature. It is completely out of its mind, yet never did I feel like he dropped the ball somewhere along the way. Every scene, every character, every joke worked perfectly for me, and formed a whole that might well be my favorite film of the year.
Which doesn’t mean that I can’t understand why the reception has been so divisive, to put it mildly. Let’s make one thing clear: there is very little internal coherence in the story. The film constantly keeps adding more questions without answering anything; characters and events seem almost randomly interconnected; hardly any loose threads are resolved in the end. Sure, there are a couple of clear motives and themes present throughout the film, but anyone looking for a logical, coherent plot with round characters will leave the theatre sorely disappointed – most likely an hour before the credits start to roll. It is definitely a film aimed at a certain audience, an audience of which I am very glad to be part of. I am actually still surprised by the fact that there weren’t any walkouts in my ¾ full theatre. Letterboxd is gonna be a lovely battlefield in December when it is finally getting released in the US.
Of course, the plot making little to no sense does not mean that the film itself has no meaning. Under the Silver Lake is just not all that interested in the destination. It is the journey that matters: the absurd visual jokes that fill every scene and the hundreds of obscure movie references of which I undoubtedly missed quite a few. There is a scene early on in the movie where Sam (Andrew Garfield) visits one of his friends in the Hollywood Hills, played by a moustached Eric Forman. They set out a drone to spy on their collective obsession: naked women. It does actually appear to work for a while. A beautiful young woman sits on her bed, takes of her shirt, puts her head in her arms and… begins to cry. This is essentially how the film works. We, together with Sam, are looking for spectacle, a way to make sense of our seemingly meaningless life. And we may see a little spectacle – in this case a bra. In the end however, we do not get any satisfaction. Why is the woman crying? I haven’t got the faintest clue and the movie is not going to explain.
Moustached Eric Forman's dialogue during this scene can be seen as an explanation of the movies themes. I quoted one of the lines at the beginning of this review (the only line that I could remember exactly). We want to find a huge conspiracy behind our existence. It is unphantomable that our lives are simply a result of practically random happenings. An immense interconnectivity – whether it be Illuminati, God or Lizard people – is a way to make sense of our lives.
And this is exactly what Sam does. Near the end of the film, he is walking with the daughter of a supposedly murdered businessman whey they decide to take a swim in the Los Angeles reservoir (possibly a geographic reference to its prominent use in Polanski’s Chinatown). Their naked nightly adventure does not end as Sam imagined when arrows begin to rain down upon them, killing the girl in the process. The POV-shot of her bleeding body immediately reminds the audience of an earlier image: the cover of a Playboy magazine that Sam keeps next to his bed. It is however, not the only visual association that I made during this scene. The sinking body also has a striking resemblance to the iconic sleeve from Nirvana’s Nevermind, an album that hangs, not entirely coincidental, on the wall in the Songwriter’s chamber.
It is not the only moment in which Sam’s status as a reliable narrator are put into doubt. Isn’t it a little too coincidental that the map to the Songwriter’s mansion has to be formed by combining two puzzle pieces: a magazine of which Sam happens to possess every issue and a cornflake box that someone gave to him earlier in the film? I am not saying that all the events that happen in the movie are all necessarily products of Sam drugged-out mind. The conspiracies he uncovers might very well be true. But in the end, the film doesn’t care all that much about finding an objective truth. It is about our need to find a meaning, or to create one if it can’t be found.
But this is not only Sam’s quest. It is ours just as much. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Sam rushes to the bathroom after having eaten an entire drugged cookie. We get to see his stall, with him hanging over the toilet bowl, from a God’s eye perspective. On the right side of the stall a giant penis is drawn, a recurring motif throughout the movie. The left side shows a series of strange symbols. Sam, too busy emptying his stomach contents into the toilet, never notices them, and as far as I know these symbols never return anywhere else in the film (but what do I know?). Multiple audience members did however, and immediately bent their heads 45 degrees to see if they could make sense out of the mysterious drawings. We want to make sense of all of this just as much as Sam.
Under the Silver Lake is a film about a world where people unironically believe that playing Sgt. Pepper backwards would reveal the sinister truth about Paul McCartney’s death (or an advertisement for LSD, depending on who you ask); where the Flat Earth Society is a serious and ever expanding organization; where democratically elected politicians manage to openly deny climate change despite every piece of evidence claiming the contrary. It is a film about a world where truth was murdered alongside God, and paranoia reigns.
But it would be unfair to reduce Under the Silver Lake to just a commentary about our nihilistic, internet-obsessed, post-truth society. In the first place it is an incredibly funny film. The Songwriter scene is one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film and had me non-stop laughing for about ten minutes. I am writing this 24 hours after watching the film and I still keep recollecting memorable scenes: the part where Sam walks through the hidden tunnels under Los Angeles and ends up in the freezer of a supermarket; the unexplained naked Owl assassin/ Eyes Wide Shut reference; that Spiderman reference near the beginning that would have been incredibly cheesy in every other movie; the pirate. Every scene is filled with so many jokes, so many references! All brilliantly connected by Garfield’s goofy performance and Mitchell’s masterful direction.
So farewell Mr. Chalamet and Mr. Hammer, and welcome Mr. Garfield. It looks like we have a new film of the year.