A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma
2018 / USA / 139 min. / dir. by David Robert Mitchell / Opened in select cities on April 19, 2019; premiered online on April 22, 2019by:
“Break the code, solve the crime.” As FBI Agent Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan asserted this maxim with the G-man’s typical rock-ribbed certainty during the first season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s epochal series Twin Peaks (1990-91). Cooper was convinced that a methodical untangling of clues – both conventional and mystical – would allow him and his law-enforcement allies to riddle out the answer to the show’s central mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? Indeed, much of the superficial appeal of Twin Peaks lay in the apparent density of its symbology, wherein every quirky detail seemed gravid with meaning, no matter how tangential it might have appeared to the question of who took the life of Twin Peaks, Wash.’s beloved homecoming queen. Of course, the perverse twist of Lynch and Frost’s series was that all the codes were a distraction, the murder mystery was beside the point, and righteousness was no bulwark against the cosmos’ unfathomable darkness. (A pessimistic view that was only reinforced by Lynch and Frost’s more radical and explicitly auteurist sequel series, Twin Peaks: The Return .)
Under the Silver Lake, the third feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover , It Follows ) has a comparable relationship with mystery. On the one hand, the entire film is constructed around the seductive power of hidden messages, obscure symbols, and fringe conspiracy theories. The film’s protagonist gradually becomes obsessed with such minutiae, and Mitchell is counting on the viewer being similarly enticed by the feature’s wall-to-wall carpeting of Reddit-baiting clues. As with Twin Peaks, however, Under the Silver Lake frustrates the audience’s decryption efforts at every turn. The riddles pile up faster than the answers, and every other avenue of investigation seems to lead to a shaggy-dog punchline. Mitchell’s feature wants to have its cake and eat it too, pandering to conspiratorial thinking while also mocking its (typically male) practitioners as small-minded, insufferable crypto-narcissists. (It’s essentially the cinematic equivalent of that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “Pepe Silvia” meme.) The film walks a razor-thin tightrope in this respect, and Mitchell doesn’t always maintain his footing, often teetering on the verge of endorsing what it aims to satirize. However, even when it fumbles, Under the Silver Lake remains a weird, audacious, and intoxicating work.
Vibrating to the discordant tones of Los Angeles-based slacker noir – especially The Big Lebowski (1998) and Inherent Vice (2014) – Under the Silver Lake centers on Sam (Andrew Garfield), an aimless, jobless thirtysomething deadbeat who’s a few days shy of eviction from his apartment. Sam’s also a bit of a creep when it comes to women: When he’s not accepting listless afternoon booty calls from an underemployed actress (Riki Lindhome), he’s using binoculars to ogle the habitually topless, bird-fancying GILF (Wendy Vanden Heuvel) whose second-floor balcony is catty-corner to his own. However, when Sam spies a leggy blond tenant he’s never noticed before lounging by the pool, this newcomer focuses his starry-eyed, lustful attention like no one other woman in his vicinity. He later arranges to “accidentally” bump into this enticing girl-next-door, Sarah (Riley Keough), who calls out his voyeurism with coquettish amusement. He admires her little dog and she invites him in for a drink. They get high, flirt, and kiss. She cuts the evening short when her roommates abruptly return home – with a mystery man dressed as a pirate; what’s that about? – but he extracts a promise for more romance to come: “See you tomorrow?”
Sam awakens the next day with an uncharacteristic spring in his step, but his good mood is deflated when he finds Sarah’s apartment utterly vacant, as though she and her roommates had packed up and moved out overnight. The complex’s manager doesn’t find the situation strange – “She wanted to leave. How does that not make sense?” – but Sam is baffled and more than a little hurt by this next-level ghosting. What truly triggers his nascent obsession, however, is a strange symbol he spies painted on the abandoned apartment’s wall. Later, an underground cartoonist (Patrick Fischler) explains that the sigil is hobo code for “Stay quiet.” (Fischler’s presence adds another layer of meta-movie weirdness to the proceedings, given that he previously appeared in Lynch’s Hollywood fever dream Mulholland Drive , portraying a man whose nightmare comes to life in the alley behind a greasy spoon.)
There’s something bizarre about the whole situation, which is one reason Sam feels compelled to shadow a woman (Zoisia Mamet) who he catches rifling through a box of Sarah’s left-behind junk. She and two other women (Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Laura Leigh) criss-cross LA in a white Volkswagen Rabbit convertible – we see what you did there, Mr. Mitchell – while Sam tails them from a distance. The trio stop to watch as strange numbers blink on a football-field scoreboard, before eventually arriving at a hip rooftop party where a local act known as Jesus and the Brides of Dracula warble their goth-rock ballads. (Hey, didn’t Sam see them on the cover of a weekly alt newspaper earlier?) Everyone is talking about the mysterious disappearance of billionaire Jefferson Severence, as well as the depraved crimes of the “Dog-Killer” who’s been mutilating pooches in Sam’s neighborhood. What does it all mean? And what the hell happened to Sarah?
So it goes: down, down, down into the fetid crevasses of conspiratorial logic, where every Hollyweird curlicue seems to contain a hidden message, sinister connotation, or pointing finger directed at some other arcane signpost. Sam isn’t a novice to this sort of thinking, as it turns out. As he explains to his actress friend-with-benefits, he’s been taking notes on Vanna White’s eye movements on Wheel of Fortune for years, convinced that they comprise a secret code intended for a select few. “That sounds strange to you,” he observes, mid-rant, when he notices her incredulous, concerned expression. “I mean … a little,” she replies. Whenever Sam or one of his conspiracy-theory fellow travelers starts working themselves into a frenzy about everything being connected, man, one can’t help but think of The Maltese Falcon (1941): “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”
Sam embodies a certain stripe of fevered slacker man-child, one who has substituted neurotic exegesis of political and cultural particles for the basics of adulting. Sam can’t (or won’t) hold down a job or do his own laundry, but he frantically sifts through album liner notes, hand-drawn local zines, and back issues of Nintendo Power in search of breadcrumbs. He even plays vinyl records backward to find subliminal messages, evoking the “Paul is dead” urban legend and the satanic panic of the 1980s (both of which proved to be bullshit, it bears noting). “There’s an entire generation of boys raised by movies and video games,” kvetches Sam’s similarly shiftless bar buddy (Topher Grace), but it’s unclear if either man thinks of himself in such terms, even as they unwittingly re-enact a scene from Body Double (1984) by playing peeping Tom with a laptop-linked drone. It never occurs to Sam that he might be on the wrong path – in life in general or specifically with respect to Sarah’s disappearance – even as he’s getting stalked, threatened, drugged, beat up, chained up, shot at, and sprayed in the face by a skunk. Indeed, Sam takes every roadblock as confirmation that he’s getting closer to the truth; he’s overflowing with the 4chan dirtbag’s version of anti-hater smarm.
Under the Silver Lake unfolds in a surreal, fantastical version of the City of Angels, whose slightly askew geography has rarely taken cinematic center stage in the way that it does here. In this – and other respects – Lake plays like the millennial SoCal cousin of Vertigo (1958), but with an added layer of unreality owing to the former film's proximity to the Hollywood dream factory. Indeed, Mitchell is quite cognizant of the extent to which real-world locales and pop culture can seem to blur together in Los Angeles. (How else to explain why a bust of James Dean graces Griffith Observatory alongside statues of Copernicus and Kepler?) Under the Silver Lake is so densely studded with allusions that Sam (and the viewer) is tempted to to discern meaning in every jot of on-screen information, even when that meaning is obvious, ambiguous, or just patently absurd. It’s no coincidence that Mitchell slips R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” into the soundtrack, an oblique reference to the notorious 1986 incident where a man randomly assaulted Dan Rather. Nor is it a coincidence that the bizarre, ominous demand screamed by said attacker – “Kenneth, what is the frequency?!” – didn’t amount to anything in the end. It was just the cry of a delusional, violent man lashing out at phantom oppressors. Also not a coincidence: Sam is seen reading David Kahn’s The Code-Breakers, which crops up in Zodiac (2007), another tale of obsession, dissatisfaction, and investigative dead ends.
There’s a discomfiting undercurrent of misogyny to the Under the Silver Lake’s paranoia, which Mitchell is trenchant enough to discern and bold enough to highlight in unflattering terms, but too cagey to explicitly condemn. As seen through Sam’s vaguely aggrieved eyes, every woman in Southern California resembles a ingenue, siren, whore, or mad, barking bitch. (Even the model on the Lasik billboard seems to be taunting him!) The feminine and the bestial are repeatedly intermingled in the film’s vocabulary, as when Fischler’s paranoid artist implants in Sam’s brain the legend of a naked, owl-masked succubus roaming nocturnal LA. Sam’s mostly obscure romantic history is given allegorical form in one of the feature’s animated zine interludes, wherein the Dog-Killer’s hatred of canines is linked to personal failures and misdirected resentment. Whether all this makes Lake itself misogynistic is unclear. However, it’s significant that while Sam is handsome and gawkily charismatic (given that he’s played by Garfield), the film takes pains to portray him as a self-absorbed scumbag, less anti-hero than un-hero. Even his purported white-knight concern for Sarah’s fate is rooted in asymmetrical horndog fantasies, not an ingrained sense of justice or decency.
The film itself seems to regard Sam’s worldview as pathetic rather than outright toxic. His conspiratorial mindset is even presented as understandable, to the extent the there is a natural human urge to sort signal from noise in the overstimulated landscape of modern life. However, Mitchell also cynically posits that all explanatory frameworks that involve secret knowledge necessarily create castes: the sheeple who just don’t get it and the keen-minded who can see through the illusion. It’s certainly not incidental that one of the weird, inter-linked conspiracies that Sam eventually uncovers – a ridiculous, patriarchal scheme that evokes the monumental hubris of the pharaohs – is itself obsessed with such unwashed masses vs. ascended elite distinctions. (Another hidden scheme alleges that every tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was penned by the same nefarious songwriting Methuselah, which would certainly explain why so many pop songs sound the same.)
By the time these and other outlandish plots are fully revealed, Under the Silver Lake has begun to go a bit off the rails, spinning its wheels to attain a 139-minute running time that the material, however compellingly daft, doesn’t really justify. Still, Mitchell’s film is exactly the sort of hallucinatory, ambitious swing for the fences that would feel like a disappointment if it didn’t go off the rails at some point. While it doesn’t peter out with the same subversive shrug that characterizes the conclusion of its spiritual kin, The Big Lebowski, the film does imply that some things aren’t worth investigating. “There’s nothing to solve, you know?” suggests one of the candy-colored vixens that drifts through Sam’s odyssey. “It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” Not that anyone will listen to such advice. Under the Silver Lake is the kind of film that will inspire dissertations that seek to unpack every reference, allusion, and production-design hat tip. (Admittedly, there aren’t many features that contain nods to both In a Lonely Place  and Manos: The Hands of Fate .) Mitchell will doubtlessly laugh himself hoarse when some poor, misguided soul inevitably rises to such a meaningless challenge.