Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Riki Lindhome, Callie Hernandez, Topher Grace
Director: David Robert Mitchell
“Sam, a disenchanted young man, finds a mysterious woman swimming in his apartment’s pool one night. The next morning, she disappears. Sam sets off across LA to find her, and along the way he uncovers a conspiracy far more bizarre” (IMDb).
»Currently streaming on Amazon Prime«
What to Expect
A conspiracy theorist’s fever dream
An homage to old Hollywood
A neo-noir mystery
Why You Should Watch It
Film buffs will enjoy the cinematography that harkens back to traditional film noir: the dramatic incidental score, long tracking shots and zooms, the high contrasts of light and dark, and using them to highlight faces and scenes. Non-film buffs will probably wonder what the heck is transpiring, but it’s an interesting crime story that pokes fun at the absurdity of both old Hollywood storytelling tropes and modern decadence. And who doesn’t love a mystery with a healthy dose of tongue in cheek?
This movie is complex for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that the main theme is about finding patterns and meaning where you least expect it. Considering the entire film is centered around hidden messages, it wouldn’t be surprising if Mitchell hid his own secret message within the whole story. It’s just up to the committed to find it, and boy are they trying. However, there are some who argue that the film’s meaning is that there is no secret meaning to anything, and those who search for connections are fools to try. That being said, here are my interpretations.
What good would a movie be, replete with references to Hitchcock (compare Sam [Garfield] spying on Sarah [Keough] from his balcony to Rear Window, and peep the headstone the prostitutes are leaning on when Sam first gets to the graveyard), if it didn’t have a good MacGuffin or two thrown in?
The first plot point I consider a MacGuffin is the film’s title, which is also a graphic novel Sam picks up at a bookstore. Although we do know Millicent Sevence’s body (Hernandez) ends up under a lake, the idea that there is some dark secret hidden at the bottom of a lakebed is quickly diverted to a death cult compound in the Hollywood Hills. One could argue that the secret tunnels to these ascension chambers are, quite literally, under Silver Lake, California; but the discovery of the tunnels themselves isn’t what solves the mystery of Sarah’s murder.
The Owl’s Kiss is another interesting MacGuffin that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. It’s responsible for killing the other conspiracy theorist in this story, and terrorizes Sam, but flits out a door and is never explained or seen from again. Some people believe she is a representation of depression or some other mental illness, but the bizarreness of the character is vastly overshadowed by so many other wacky elements that it’s hard to give her such significance. I had completely forgotten about her myself until I started researching for this article.
The last MacGuffin is Sam’s neighbor’s parrot. In the movie and online there isn’t a clear consensus on what the bird was saying. I had my money on “murderer,” but it doesn’t seem to matter much because it’s a dead-end plot point that succinctly wraps up the ending with its owner’s words, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know either, topless lady, unless it’s actually a clue to the dog killer…
Under the Silver Lake takes plenty of jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood as it relates to both its movies and the town itself. The film is intentionally misogynist, playing on old tropes by painting the protagonist as a loser who is inexplicably surrounded by beautiful women that he gets to sleep with, make out with, or flirt with. Sam openly hates the homeless—of which there are many in LA—while at the same time remains unconcerned that he is hurtling toward homelessness himself. There is a hilarious “chase” scene on paddleboats that pokes fun at other cinematic chase scenes and ends with a pirate jumping out from between the trees to make the handoff before dancing away with his prize. Sam obtains a cookie that is used for entry into a secret party that ends up being an edible. And the band he sees perform is made up of famous undead characters: the brides of Dracula and Jesus.
My favorite criticism, however, had to be Sarah’s denial of Sam. Too often a movie plot has revolved around one or both characters becoming infatuated with the other after a brief meet cute (think in the case of The Little Mermaid, where Ariel goes from seeing Eric to “But Daddy I love him” without saying so much as a single word to the guy). But in this film, Sarah is surprised that Sam went to the lengths he did to find her, and gently reminds him, “We don’t really know each other.” A far more realistic and honest response to discovering the guy you wanted to have a little fun with the other night has suddenly become your stalker.
The Dog Killer
My money is on Sam being the dog killer. There’s just too many clues pointing toward it. The opening shot zooms out to frame him in the center of the words, “Beware the Dog Killer” on the window. He’s local, like the bookstore guy surmised the killer would be. He was interested in a girl who had a dog. He has delusions of women who bark like dogs. In one scene, as he walks down the street talking on the phone with his bar buddy (Grace), all the dogs he passes are barking at him and he appears uncomfortable. He carries around dog treats in his pockets all the time and gives conflicting reasons as to why—telling Sarah that his dog was killed and sobbing to the homeless king that it was in hopes to see his ex again. The latter excuse is particularly strange as he admits the breakup was a long time ago. And let’s not forget Sam IS a killer…bludgeoning the songwriter with Kobain’s guitar in self defense (side theory…the songwriter was Satan? Or some kind of demon. One of the songs he claims to have written is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which would make him immortal). Right before the credits roll and switch back and forth between illustrations of dogs and Sam, we are left with the final scene and the parrot chanting its mysterious phrase. If you’re like me and hear “murderer,” the juxtaposition between the bird and the end credits feels like it’s telling you something.