Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Directed by David Robert Mitchell

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Myth is a constant theme in the three movies directed by David Robert Mitchell.  Those three are The Myth of the American SleepoverIt Follows and now Under the Silver Lake.  They are all a bit different, one a slice of life film about teenagers, another a horror film and this one a sort of stoner comedy detective movie like Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski.  Throughout each of them, however, there is a focus on the stories we tell each other, that have been passed down to us and that we choose to believe.

This time around it’s Sam’s (Andrew Garfield) commitment to such myths, codes and secret messages which drives the plot.  He is a lonely young man soon to be evicted from his apartment who develops a quick infatuation with an attractive neighbor (Riley Keough) whom he barely knows.  When she disappears in the middle of the night he is certain that there is something going on here.

Sam believes that the rich share a secret language which he and so many aren’t privy to.  He’s hellbent on decoding this language, and this being a graphic novel-esque surreal little slice of the real world, he succeeds.  This journey of his will introduce him to secret societies, cults, homeless hill people, rich white men who control our minds through pop culture and a call girl or two who seem to show up everywhere he looks.

The film as a whole buys into these same myths that Sam so devoutly believes in.  He is so committed to this cause, a life philosophy more than actual concern for his neighbor, and all the clues slowly add up over time.  The world of this movie insists upon a certain amount of control and secrecy and lack of free will.  We are the products of our environment, wrapped around the finger of those who want to keep us in our place.

It’s all a bit silly but so sincerely expressed, albeit with an undeniable madness that both embraces and critiques Sam’s unusual cause.  It might just be that I agree to some extent with what he believes in, though of course it’s nowhere near as simple or even conscious as is presented in this movie.

The world here is wild but connected.  It’s like so many films noir, going back to those Philip Marlowe narratives, Chinatown and so on.  These stories, like myths themselves, have been passed down through generations, remixed and commented upon.  That’s where you get the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, a stoner noir bringing to mind old noirs like The Big Sleep.  The characters are as much archetypes as actual characters, if not more.  They are purposefully mysterious though sometimes turn out to just be quite vapid.

The goal within movies like these is to unlock some kind of mystery, to find out some sacred truth.  As these stories chug along through time it seems that the truth is often anticlimactic, drawing attention instead to the obsession for that truth and lack of any single truth at all.  It is thus a story about the search for truth and meaning in things that often don’t have any.

But of course here they do, and I think that says much more about the character than the world.  He’s a character so convinced that meaning is out there, and he finds it in everything, cereal boxes, comics, music lyrics and people who just keep showing up in the background.  We’re so inside his head throughout all this that it’s hard to believe these things exist, just that he’s certain they do and he sees what he wants to see.

As an example of this lack of any single truth, take the scene in which he meets a wealthy old songwriter in a Charles Foster Kane-esque mansion.  He is some kind of evil incarnate, a destructive force who so neatly embodies all that is wrong with the world of this movie, at least as Sam sees it.  He is an old white man who runs the world anonymously.  He is, in fact, the opposite of a lack of truth, he’s a very neat answer to one of the movie’s riddles.  And yet it’s so neat that it’s like the punchline to a joke, not a poignant resolution to Sam’s quest.  It’s so absurd and confusing that it doesn’t satisfy Sam’s hunger, only makes him look elsewhere.

So that’s part of what makes this film interesting, is that it’s as much about the main character as the world he perceives around him.  His cause is hardly romantic or righteous but instead some sort of hero complex.

In old noirs, it seems, the main character is jaded.  The plot then offers him a chance at some sort of rebirth, at least a way of injecting some optimism into his life, but then things end in such a way that he returns to who he once was, pessimistic and isolated.  In some of these more recent noir remixes, like The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, it seems that the main character is just a bit empty or stoned or both.  Though specific events get them involved in the plot, there is something already unlocked within them that lets them so willingly wander into this world.  It may be love or infatuation, a soiled rug or a simple curiosity bordering on obsession.

If this theory holds true, then these characters are curious within a world that rewards such curiosity.  It may be painful, even deadly, but the bread crumbs lead somewhere, and by the end, well maybe they don’t actually change.  Instead they just keep looking for more clues to another mystery.

It should also be noted that the movie poster resembles that of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), a sci-fi movie about a construction worker vagabond who finds out that mass culture is controlled by aliens hiding in plain sight.

Up Next: Hud (1963), We Are Columbine (2018), Fury (1936)

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