The sinister underbelly of Los Angeles has been explored in popular culture over and over again, with countless musicians, filmmakers and artists putting their spin on the tale of what lies beneath the glossy veneer of the city. No matter how many times the story has been told, we’re still interested in the idea that there’s a dark side to la la land. Under the Silver Lake is David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir take on this subject matter
In this story, we’re propelled into the dark side of the city with Sam (Andrew Garfield), whose encounter with his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), leads Sam to investigate her mysterious disappearance. Desperate to find out more, Sam journeys through the weird world of Los Angeles to uncover what happened.
For me, this could have been a much better movie than it ended up being. There’s so much in here, at times it’s overwhelming. I think that was the intention, but what I imagine was intended to be layered and rich actually felt more chaotic and messy. There’s some good stuff here, but I just feel like the plot is too unmoored, with elements being picked up and dropped all over the place. There’s allusion after allusion to cultural touchstones, but in trying to include everything, I felt it ended up being about nothing.
The film isn’t all bad. At times it’s intriguing, and it really is ambitious and inventive, especially impressive when the subject matter isn’t exactly new. I did enjoy watching it, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while. The thing that really lets Under the Silver Lake down for me is it’s portrayal of women. They are all interchangeable accessories that Sam either extracts information from or has sex with, sometimes at the same time. There’s a glaring lack of any characterisation of the women in this film, which I found really disappointing.
It could probably be argued that the treatment of women in this movie is part of what the movie is commenting on, and there are elements of the movie (the shout out to the male gaze, the fact that Sam doesn’t really know Sarah) that make me think this was the intention, but the delivery left the movie feeling more exploitative than empathetic.
It does lead to a larger question about the purpose of exploiting the male gaze to comment on it. I feel like I’m seeing this more and more, where (male) filmmakers make heavy use of the male gaze in their movies as a way to expose and supposedly denounce it. Does it mean anything, or is it just the same as every other movie where it’s played straight? I really don’t think it worked here, if it’s even what the intention was.
After I finished watching Under the Silver Lake I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I need to watch it again. I’m not sure if the release was delayed so the film could be recut, but I’d be really interested to see a different version. I think there is a good movie in here somewhere, but at the moment I just can’t find it.