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One hot Los Angeles summer, a series of strange and unexplainable events coincide: A string of dog murders plagues the city, and billionaire Hollywood mogul Jefferson Sevence goes missing. Meanwhile, Sam (Andrew Garfield, with a fluidly American accent), a 30-something year old in a bout of unemployment-provoked lethargy, spends his days loafing around in pajama pants and evading his landlord in an East L.A. apartment decked out with pop culture paraphernalia. Sam meets Sarah (Riley Keough), the girl next door who brings her dog to the neighborhood pool. When Sarah goes missing the next day, a strange, double-diamond symbol painted on the wall of her empty apartment, Sam takes it upon himself to find out where she went. With the help of the sheltered, local author (Patrick Fischler) of the eccentric ‘zine he reads, Sam unwittingly uncovers the conspiracy that underlies not only that summer’s mysteries, but sex, fantasy, and pop culture as he knows it.
“Under the Silver Lake” is a pretentious amalgam of male paranoia, teeming with dreamy desperation to discover the secret rules and hidden codes of the world around us to understand one’s place in the world. Director David Robert Mitchell lays solid groundwork for a tragicomic neo-noir, a Lynchian palimpsest that promises to reveal the dark rot under the surface of perennially sunny Los Angeles days. Mitchell’s imagery simmers evocatively, refreshingly trippy—though it all seems to gesture at a statement that he hasn’t clarified, even to himself, like a string of blissed-out, drug-addled musings he scribbled while half-asleep. What’s left is a film that quickly devolves into pretension by its second act, unraveling faster than the mystery at Sam’s feet.
At the center of “Under the Silver Lake” is a cluster of male anxieties about female sexuality, and the desire to control it. Mitchell’s characters seem to at least be partially self-aware of it: “All these holy trinities of women, turning like ants under the magnifying glass of the male gaze,” a girl says, monotone, at a party. And there are more than a couple: There’s Keough’s Sarah, who prances around in a white bikini, accentuated by purposeful camera zooms on her backside, or in a “Something’s Got to Give”-inspired dream sequence, completely nude by the pool. There’s the unnamed Actress (Riki Lindhome) who occasionally visits Sam for casual, distracted sex in a cartoonishly “sexy” costume from the pages of the Party City Halloween catalogue. There’s Millicent Sevence (Callie Hernandez), the billionaire’s daughter, a classic film-noir beauty. But perhaps by parading these women around, each in a costume skimpier than the last, “Under the Silver Lake” reproduces the very repression it intends to critique.
But “failure to critique” isn’t a shortcoming that can be reasonably applied to “Under the Silver Lake,” which in a 139-minute runtime manages to critique every Hollywood institution under the dependable Los Angeles sun. More than a few characters, including Garfield’s progressively more unstable Sam, launch into infuriated tirades about everything from entertainment to pop music, from capitalistic wealth to the homeless. At the forefront of these is a diatribe about the superficiality of Los Angelean glamour and success, and the misplaced hope of the young people who hunger for a place in it—as well as the corporate greed underlying the glittery promises of the Dream Factory. When Sam stumbles into the stucco mansion of a famous and elusive songwriter, full of pop culture memorabilia, he expects to find the answers to the puzzles he’s been chasing down, the revelation at the end of the tunnel. He’s shocked to find out that the proprietor of Kurt Cobain’s original guitar is markedly cynical: “I don’t care what’s fashionable or cool,” says the songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), whose piano-playing rapidly switches tack from one iconic anthem to another, the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” He continues, “It’s all meaningless. When you were 15 and rebelling, you were doing it to my music. There is no rebellion. There’s only me earning a paycheck… Everything that you hoped for is a fabrication. Your art, writing, pop culture, is a shell of another man’s ambition.”
Sexuality, culture, myth: All is eroded as Sam begins to uncover the truth about his world, the secret codes in pop songs that become progressively elusive the more he tries to hunt them down. As Sam becomes increasingly embedded in the conspiracy, it becomes harder to ascertain what’s dream and what’s reality, until the two meld together in one psychedelic, unhinged string of loosely connected events. A nightmare about a gutted dog and a zombified Sarah, feasting on the entrails of a dead man, closely follows a surreal vision of a squirrel dropping dead from a tree and landing in a bloodied splat on the pavement. A coyote leads him on a wild chase to another glitzy party. There’s a statement here, about spirituality and sex and fame, but it’s elusive and just out of reach, slightly too surreal to be anything more than a string of resonant images. Meanwhile, the landlord’s irritation at Sam’s incompetence builds. But Sam could care less about responsibility, indulging in the pursuit of the riddles, hellbent on cracking the code at any cost. It is, after all, the only thing that gives him purpose. The City of Angels was never so full of demons.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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