David Robert Mitchell might think his Under the Silver Lake is a critique of misogynistic, pop culture obsessed men — but he ends up validating their worldview.
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This review discusses several plot details of the film.
It Follows, the second feature from American director David Robert Mitchell, was a hit: the formally-ambitious film successfully built up suspense over a carefully structured narrative. The low-budget effort was praised as the first in a new wave of indie, “intelligent” horror movies, for touching on an array of serious topics ranging from gentrification and racism to sexually transmitted diseases and the psychological implications of promiscuous sex.
Or rather, this was how It Follows was cannily presented both by Mitchell and distributors: their “elevated” genre piece apparently sat on a higher intellectual plane than most horror cinema. Film marketers themselves quickly began distancing films from their genre roots to better flatter potential audiences.
A closer look — or a measured post-hype rewatch — soon reveals that the film does not explore these important themes in any meaningful or substantial way, as so many truly great horror films have done before (George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, to cite just a few). Rather, It Follows points at these topics with a severe and self-righteous finger, heavy-handedly signalling their presence in the narrative but engaging with them only superficially. The film constantly belittles and lectures the viewer as though subtext, allegory, political insight, or gender trouble were entirely new in horror cinema.
With a considerably larger budget, scope, and runtime, Mitchell’s follow up Under the Silver Lake confirms all of the director’s patronising tendencies already at work in It Follows.
Under the Silver Lake centres on Sam (Andrew Garfield), a man utterly bored by everything around him. His ennui might seem understandable at first, since he lives in Los Angeles, a city presented as the epitome of vapidity and disappointment. Lavishly shot and supplemented with a DePalma-esque, paranoia-inducing score, Mitchell’s L.A. is populated with failed actors and actresses constantly reflecting Sam’s own failure back to himself. However, his intense detachment and disdain turn out to be the first worrying characteristic of a vicious, cruel, and self-centred protagonist.
Not that the film necessarily understands this. As Sam’s best friend (Topher Grace) repeatedly explains, just in case the audience didn’t catch on, Sam is a geek who searches for meaning in conspiracy theories and for messages in pop culture because he is looking for a purpose.
Sam has something of a girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), a young actress who comes across as a nice and clever girl, but she doesn’t interest him. She will soon exit the picture, but before that, she will be mocked by the film at every turn. First seen in a highly sexualised traditional German costume for an audition, then in a sexy nurse uniform — again, for a role — she is finally grossly and aggressively objectified in an explicit and extended sex scene, topless and on her knees while Garfield behind her inexplicably keeps his shirt on. But she is just a distraction from Sam’s real interest. When she knocks on his door at the beginning of the film, she interrupts him spying on a mysterious girl (Riley Keough) in a bikini who has just arrived at the pool outside his house.
Naturally, it is this stranger that Sam will become obsessed with. The woman, called Sarah, does not speak except to talk about her dog; she is half naked whenever Sam sees her. As a stranger, she is a blank slate ready to receive the projections of his fantasies. Unlike his girlfriend, Sarah is also a mystery to be solved. When she suddenly disappears overnight — before poor Sam could even have sex with her — he immediately decides to track her down. Silent Sarah is the girl of his dreams: pleasing to the eyes, she will never obstruct or interrupt him; she gives him a purpose, and just might turn him into a hero.'Silent Sarah is the girl of his dreams: pleasing to the eyes, she will never obstruct or interrupt him; she gives him a purpose, and just might turn him into a hero.'Click To Tweet
Sam’s obsession with pop culture and his passion for boobies combine in his search for Sarah. With the help of many beautiful women, he follows a trail of codes and finds a common, secret thread linking up apparently disconnected items and people. Like his girlfriend, none of these female characters come out unscathed. The film’s brazen sexism is matched by the shameless unoriginality of the conspiracy theories and clues that take up most of its runtime.'Sam’s obsession with pop culture and his passion for boobies combine in his search for Sarah.'Click To Tweet
Most far-fetched theories about codes and double meanings in pop culture are utterly uninteresting, because these are preoccupations most people grow out of when they become adults and start participating in the business of the world. Under the Silver Lake adds insult to injury by having all these secret meanings be crushingly banal. Most of the film’s indulgent 139 minute runtime involves a series of undermining revelations straight out of the moral panics of the 1980s, consisting mostly of an exasperating torrent of 80s/90s paraphernalia and satanic messages in records played backwards. These epiphanies culminate with an allusion to the James Dean statue at the Griffith Observatory that feels like the sort of lazy reference that could only be made by a teenager, or by someone who has never set foot in L.A..
Faced with these shockingly uninventive references and with Sam’s unambiguous misogyny, it is reasonable to expect his theories about the way the world actually works to be proven wrong, and the sexism so entwined with them, upended.
Many critics have pointed out that the film does, to some extent, criticise Sam’s behaviour. But few have acknowledged how patient and restrained that critique is, in contrast with the bluntness of every other aspect aspect of the film. From its overstuffed visual style to the precipitous rhythm of the editing; from the crude pop culture references to the brash orchestral score; from the simplistic characterisation of women to their brutal treatment — Under the Silver Lake is male both in its cockiness and in the way it lets its central male protagonist off the hook.'UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is male both in its cockiness and in the way it lets its central male protagonist off the hook.'Click To Tweet
As it turns out, every single one of Sam’s conspiracy theories is true; his juvenile fascination for codes and secret meanings is validated, and so is the sexism that guided him. The film’s only pseudo-critique of his puerile attitude is that knowing the truth doesn’t save him. Sam follows the clues of mainstream entertainment all the way to the house of a mysterious old man (Jeremy Bobb), surrounded by various legendary music instruments — including the Fender Mustang that belonged to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Sam is a big fan of the band, and when the old man reveals that he wrote both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and every single pop culture hit of the last 50 years, Sam cannot handle the truth. He brutally murders the stranger, the camera madly swirling around him.
We can rejoice for a while in this sort of anti-Ready Player One twist. As the old songwriter explains, “so many of the things [Sam] care[s] about” turn out to be not amazing works of incredible genius, but just “the shell of other men’s ambitions” — things that people definitely shouldn’t construct their lives around. But with this twist, the film expunges Sam of all responsibility for his vacuous existence, and puts the blame on society at large. It doesn’t question his choices in making his whole life a temple to media properties. Instead, we are clearly meant to feel bad for him: he is but the victim of a system aimed at brainwashing the population into an uncritical mass gobbling up the odious consumerist messages slipped in between power chords and catchy hooks.'Many critics have pointed out that the film does, to some extent, criticise Sam’s behaviour. But few have acknowledged how patient and restrained that critique is.'Click To Tweet
The film reaches its vile conclusion when, continuing on the trail of clues, Sam finally finds Sarah. She didn’t really need his help: she wasn’t abducted, but willingly joined a cult that moved to a sealed chamber under the earth to die and “ascend” to a higher plane of existence. Yet, when Sam speaks to her on videophone, she quietly cries and asks: “Do you think I made a mistake coming down here?” She did need saving, the film is telling us — from herself, her own gullibility and stupidity. Sadly, Sam arrived too late.'With its twist, the film expunges Sam of all responsibility for his vacuous existence, and puts the blame on society at large.'Click To Tweet
Sarah’s fate clinches her portrayal as a one-sided cliche of the dumb blonde — dumb, but heartbreakingly so, according to the movie. This revelation also validates the patronising sensibility that led Sam on this adventure. He was right to be worried about this woman; he does know better than her how she should lead her life; she really did need somebody to save her.
The final lines of their conversation seal the deal. When Sarah declares: “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now; I may as well make the best of it,” he replies: “Same here.” In the same manner that Sarah realised too late she was the prisoner of a brainwashing cult, Sam is the victim of a toxic popular culture he cannot escape. But crucially, Sam knows the gears of his own oppression, while Sarah is just a confused, unsuspecting lamb sent to slaughter. The effect of this contrast can be read as heartbreaking — poor innocent woman! — only if one accepts that Sarah, like all the other women in the movie, is stupid.'Sarah *did* need saving, the film is telling us — from herself, her own gullibility and stupidity.'Click To Tweet
Many have already pointed out the similarities between this film and the TV show Search Party, where a young woman from New York City dedicates all her time and energy to finding a disappeared girl she barely knew. But where the TBS show brilliantly scrutinised the boredom of the privileged few in anxious, conspiracy-laden, 21st century America, Under the Silver Lake uses a strikingly similar story to deliver an immature statement on mass stupidity that conveniently works as a perfect excuse for rejecting all accountability.'Crucially, Sam knows the gears of his own oppression, while Sarah is just a confused, unsuspecting lamb sent to slaughter.'Click To Tweet
Poor Sam is a tragic character, too clever for his own good, envying the blissful ignorance of sheeple women. The only compassion he seems capable of is based in condescending pity; they do not know the extent of their enslavement. His superior wisdom a source of incurable suffering, he stands towering over these ladies — literally several feet above Sarah at the end of the film, in an eerie echo of the grotesque earlier sequence of him masturbating over her picture and his collection of old Playboy magazine. In this world of pain, the sweet release of weed and sex are the only sources of pleasure of an ultimately pointless life.
Give me a break.
David Robert Mitchell is not the first male director to hide a justification for sexism behind a thin veil of self-criticism. In fact, this contradictory and torturous dynamic is more widespread than we might have realised in a pre-#MeToo era. Looking back, many of the sexist films we covered were sexist in exactly the same disingenuous, self-pitying manner. Our review of Woody Allen’s Cafe Society — the last Allen film we will ever review, having since decided to stop giving his work any attention — was eerily titled “Cafe Society mocks and embraces backwards gender politics.” Gabe Klinger’s Porto aimed to romanticise and apologise for the obsession of its main character by turning the female protagonist into a grotesque male fantasy. The misogyny in Ex Machina is excused by the fact that the women in the film are literally machines; and because this is sci-fi, the film explores the worst impulses of man, and naturally, the robots suffer.