under the silver lake
- Review by Catey Clarkson
David Robert Mitchell’s newest film wants to be an eccentric and vivacious modern take on the classic noir. It’s close to impossible to describe the intricacies of the plot, so let’s introduce our protagonist, Sam, played by Andrew Garfield, who is hapless, aimless and obsessed with conspiracy theories. His enchantment with a new neighbour, Sarah, who disappears the night they meet, leads him on a crusade across Los Angeles, interacting with a variety of bizarre scenarios and people, all in the hopes that one of them will be able to help him find Sarah.
On a superficial level of critique, there are some prevalent issues. It is, first and foremost, torturously long considering the deep levels of concentration required to follow what is happening. There are also at least five discernible plotlines, most of which do not come to satisfactory conclusions, and the plethora of people you are introduced to and then torn from leave you wanting explanations. You almost find yourself begging for it to end, lest another tangent or character be introduced for you to keep up with.
The representation of women in the film is borderline infuriating. There are apparently three categories of women in this world: the Chaste Angels, who he is obsessed with and who won’t have sex; the Literally Nude Seductresses, who for some reason all want to have sex with this pathetic, obscenely unappealing man, and the Concubines, who live lavishly at the hands of old, billionaire men who only have use for them in groups of three (did I mention there has to be one blonde, one brunette, and one woman of colour in each group?). It is highly irritating that Sam is romantically involved with almost every woman in the film except his own mother. He even somehow finds himself “pretending to have sex” with the only lesbian in the film, under the pretence that what they’re discussing must be kept a secret. Not only is this idea of women deeply problematic but it is made worse by the fact that the film is seemingly hyper-aware of its own misogyny, at one point discussing the “male gaze”. This is somewhat of an irony considering it goes on to use the same tired stereotypes of women we have come to see as genuinely irreverent; perhaps it is a nod to it’s noir inspiration.
The male gaze also extends to the uncomfortably savage levels of random violence. There are three instances where Sam’s usually meek nature is transcended by a sadistic need to pummel something fleshy into the ground. From children to a songwriter, no one is exempt from potential assault. What’s more, a central strand follows a nude woman who roams LA wearing nothing but the feathers of an owl over her face, murdering men as she goes. I don’t know what this level of violence had to add to the film. It was sporadic and unnecessarily vicious, and leaves you feeling as though the preceding sequence was scripted by a child who felt that violence was the only extra touch this film needed.
To give credit where credit is due, there are two elements of the film that make it almost worth seeing. Garfield is remarkable. He takes you on a journey, whether you want to be on it or not, and though his character is both revolting and pathetic, you can’t help but feel with him. The character had some interesting insights too into the concept of knowledge and money as power, a sociological theory I hoped the film would expand on. Alas, my expectations were too high. In regards to the artistry of the film, both the soundtrack and the aesthetics cannot be faulted. In that regard, Under the Silver Lake is tension-inducing and awe-inspiring; each ethereal and pleasantly hypnotising scene allows you to feel that your time has not been completely wasted. Whether you loved or loathed the film, you cannot help but feel as though you have experienced something by watching it, whatever that something may be. These are saving graces in a film that is otherwise difficult to watch.
I’m not quite sure why this film was allowed to be made or what audience it intends to please, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s an infantile attempt to critically analyse the workings of the world from the viewpoint of a pubescent boy. The entire film is based around our protagonist trying to get his bit. Whether he learns or explains anything more interesting than that is down to your own interpretation, but you will leave with an exact mixture of confusion and infuriation; if slightly pleased that you have encountered some impressive cinematography.