Under the Silver Lake is certainly divisive. Nominated for numerous awards at Cannes in 2018, including the Palme d’Or, it received such mixed reviews that the distributor pushed back its release by almost a year. This strange beast deserves more attention; here are several reasons why you should give it a watch.
A top-tier performance from Andrew Garfield
Andrew Garfield is, objectively, a handsome man, yet he’s utterly repellent in this film. It’s something in the way he walks, hunched and skulking, or the comical way he runs without using his arms. Perhaps it’s his eyes, which are always judging, objectifying or – most frightening – considering violence.
As Sam, an early-thirties deadbeat who spends his days reading comics, spying on his neighbours and having emotionless sex, Garfield is in every scene. When Sam’s beautiful neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough) goes missing, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, searching for hidden codes and conspiracies that lead him down an increasingly ridiculous rabbit hole. It’s a testament to Garfield’s performance that although Sam is an entitled, aggressive loser, you never stop being invested in his absurd quest.
The reckless abandon of the filmmaking
If asked to place Under the Silver Lake in a genre, “mystery” is vague but probably most apt. At first it seems like a horror movie, through the use of ominous music, sudden zooms and looming camera movements. But with the appearance of Sam’s friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome), it becomes a sex comedy. From then on, anything goes.
There are overt references to other films – Rear Window, Mulholland Drive – but it’s not trying to mimic them. Certain shots are gruesome and sickening, as Sam enacts violent revenge on a wide range of people. At other times, the cinematography conveys a lush, fairy-tale feel, as Los Angeles swells with beauty, glamour, danger and doom. Under the Silver Lake makes other films look timid for only sticking to one genre, even if the stylistic changes are dizzying.
The supporting cast
At first, Riley Keough’s role in Under the Silver Lake seems unworthy of her calibre: a young woman who doesn’t do much more than smile radiantly and look beautiful. But Keough brings subtle tragedy to a character who could have easily been one-dimensional. Other stand-outs in the ensemble include Patrick Fischler – most famous for playing the Winkie’s Guy in Mulholland Drive – as a conspiracy-theorist comic book writer, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez as a wry struggling actor/“Shooting Star” escort. And special mention to Riki Lindhome (recently seen in Knives Out), who has such understated comic timing in one of the cringiest sex scenes of the last decade.
It defies notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’
This may not sound like a recommendation, but how often do you see a movie where your opinion of whether it’s actually good changes at least ten times? It may be baffling and indecipherable, but it’s never boring. For example, it’s not hard to be irritated that women in this film are nothing more than sex objects – but then it’s so overt, you have to wonder if it’s a self-aware criticism of sexism. Or is the film hiding behind ‘criticism’ as an excuse to just be sexist? You could debate it for hours.
It’s often tempting to see the film as a parody. Not only does Sam attract numerous stunning women, despite being a greasy man-child, he triumphs because of the most unbelievable coincidences. But then, just as you’re convinced the film is one big joke, there’ll be a moment of genuine pathos. In the end, Under the Silver Lake collapses any conceptions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ movies, of ‘sincere’ or ‘parody’ and forces you to just go with it. If nothing else, it’s unforgettable.
Watch 'Under the Silver Lake'
Friday 8 May, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Mystery, Crime, Drama
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Grace van Patten, Zosia Mamet
What's it about?
Young and disenchanted Sam (Garfield) meets a mysterious and beautiful woman (Keough) who's swimming in his building's pool one night. When she suddenly vanishes the next morning, Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal and conspiracy. From David Robert Mitchell, writer-director of It Follows.