Under the Silver Lake is a neo-noir that takes the piss out of (and maybe celebrates, just a little) the way stories give us meaning in the face of mundane existence. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell wrote Lake prior to his 2014 smash hit It Follows. The 260-page script translated into a two-plus-hour meandering mystery about Sam (Andrew Garfield), an L.A. layabout whose search for his missing apartment neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) leads him down the rabbit hole of a shocking conspiracy that may or may not exist.
No doubt the runtime and general listlessness of the story are the reason it never saw wide theatrical release in the United States during 2018. (Trailers were pulled from arthouses, including our local Landmark in Indianapolis.)Lake hit Blu-Ray in France last November. It is only now available for a low $5 rental price on most major streaming services. If you’re patient, settle in.
Plenty of classic noir stories feature convoluted plots and incoherent mysteries. Lake lets you know from the outset that Sam’s investigation is more or less nuts. He moves from drug-fueled moment to drug-fueled moment. His friend Bar (Topher Grace), a hipster pontificator, occasionally helps him in the “right direction.” Parties, bars, clubs. Los Angeles landmarks. Cults. There’s an eeriness to the entire film. Mitchell makes it clear from the start that everything Sam experiences may not be reliably depicted.
What Mitchell really captures in Lake is the way in which conspiracy theories make full those who believe in them. Whether or not Sam is truly on the trail of a political cult is beside the point. We first meet him sitting on the balcony of an apartment he’s five days from losing, without a job. He seems to spend each morning peeping on a neighbor who waters her plants topless. He’s a loser. When he meets Sarah, he’s briefly intoxicated and after one night makes finding her — a normal L.A. hipster girl — his life’s goal. And of course the answer isn’t as simple as her moving away: It has to be more. It has to “make sense.” Not so unlike those who spend their days trying to make sense of anything by looking for something beyond. Which, honestly, is all of us, in some fashion.
There are a parade of women in Sam’s life. Most of the time they end up naked. Lake is a male-driven film about a particularly toxic character, and there are a number of scenes that essay Mitchell’s intent here. It certainly works on the basic level of titillation, but far from the way other surreal-neon L.A. noir directors like David Lynch or Nicolas Winding Refn have used that same feeling of basic arousal to further a point. My own thoughts on the inclusion of so many women in Sam’s life boils down to his generally lazy approach to sex and sexuality, the sort of person you’d more likely find jerking off just to pass the time. And indeed, one of the pivotal comedic sequences has Sam standing over a bed covered in a pile of Playboys mixed with conspiracy notes, stroking off until he comes to a profound realization. Not for nothing, but jerking off constantly — and / or fantasizing about sex, having sex, or looking at pornography — until a revelation about your next probably-dumb decision hits you is probably a universal male experience. The humor is real because, like Sam’s descent into nutty conspiracies just to avoid the effort of everyday life, it is deeply relatable.
Lake is like watching the Reddit or internet forum experience fully realized into the body of a detective film. At pretty much any hour you can log into that website and engage in uninformed conversation about any topic. If you want to talk about a movie, for instance, you can easily find people who sit around willfully misinterpreting the content because what they’re really after isn’t truth, it’s a sense of purpose — and belonging.
Mitchell’s direction and eye for creating memorable sequences propels Lake through its gonzo plot and eventual ambiguous denouement, but it’s the constant twisting and turning of the mystery that enthralls. It isn’t a movie that could be strictly said to have a “point” or message. It provides the clues for the viewer to have fun fucking around with Sam. Maybe that’s the point. Like I said: We all live for this shit. If we didn’t, why would we watch movies?