Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Written & Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Sam is aimless. He’s far behind on rent; his relationships involve random flings or women he ogles after from his balcony. His apartment is reeking of an awful smell; he claims its the skunks roaming around the area. One evening he meets Sarah, a new neighbor whom he shares a quiet moment with. The next day everything in her apartment is packed up and gone. Suddenly, Sam is thrust into a conspiracy of codes and symbols; the mundane is given greater meaning. There are cultish rooftop parties. The band with hidden messages in their records. Fallout shelters deep beneath Los Angeles. The pirate. The balloon girl. The homeless king. Sam finds the surface of reality rippling in bizarre ways. But is this a revelation or his delusion consuming him?
David Robert Mitchell only has three feature films under his belt, including this one. The other two are The Myth of the American Sleepover, a character-focused drama about teens, and It Follows, the much-lauded hyper-stylized horror film from a few years back. If you were expecting anything similar to It Follows you will be in for a surprise. The tone and aesthetics are very different in Silver Lake, which hearkens back to Hitchcock in particular Vertigo. I can imagine audiences who are wanting a direct follow up to It Follows’ atmosphere and storytelling technique will be in for a surprise.
Under the Silver Lake is a film greatly interested in esoterica and urban legends. Mitchell employs the same subtle world-building of It Follows to fill in details of a universe that doesn’t exist. There are some real-world references, particularly to music, but overall you quickly feel like you see at least the underbelly of our reality. Sam chances upon a bizarre zine at his local used records/bookstore and seeks out its author. The contents of the publication purport to tell all the secrets of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Using animation, Mitchell brings the zine to life, and we see the curse that led to the current plague of the enigmatic Dog Killer as well as a genuinely creepy story about an owl-woman who slinks into private homes and tears out the jugulars of their occupants while they sleep.
Mitchell seems to be challenging his audience to like his movie, but not in an overtly offensive way. He presents Sam as everything we would naturally dislike in a central protagonist. He is exceptionally unkempt, doesn’t seem to concern himself with staying economically stable, treats women like objects. None of this is done with any charm; he is intentionally gross both physically and spiritually. Mitchell deliberately leaves large and seemingly significant chunks of Sam’s backstory obscured to the viewer. Not until the third act do we get enough pieces to figure out why he’s allowed himself to collapse into such a state of squalor.
There is going to be a large number of viewers who walk away from this movie with a bad taste in their mouth. Between the unlikable main character and the profoundly vague and intentionally obtuse plot, it won’t appeal to a full release audience. I find myself on the fence about movies like this often but came down on the side of enjoying Under the Silver Lake a lot. Just in this first viewing, I picked up on some implied plot aspects that make me believe there is depth here and a variety of themes and ideas are woven together that demand you view and review the picture. Sam remains an enigma, and the final scene only magnifies that in my opinion. I suspect, given time to be digested and reflected upon, Under the Silver Lake will become a treasured film of a particular niche of film lovers.