The continuing delays to its release date have made Under the Silver Lake forbidden fruit. It was supposed to come out this summer, and then the end of this year but now won’t be out until 2019, but we got to see it at AFI Fest. The film definitely lives up to its reputation as a crazy, quirky experience that can’t quite be described as much as experienced, but I will try.
Sam (Andrew Garfield) is out of work and about to be evicted. When his neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) goes missing, Sam starts looking for her. HIs investigation gets weirder and weirder until he starts looking for hidden messages and connections in music and television.
Under the Silver Lake is not science fiction or fantasy, but it is just surreal enough to make you think it could be. It takes place in modern day Los Angeles with cell phones and everything, but Sam has violent dreams, zine drawings come to life in animated sequences and the whole idea of subliminal messages and some overlords controlling us.
With the classic Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe stories, the mystery itself was less important than the quirky characters the detectives meet along the way. That’s especially true of Under the Silver Lake and it goes for Sam as well. Sam is hardly a smooth gumshoe, running awkwardly without moving his arms, goofily hiding behind trees and reeking of skunk the entire movie.
The score sounds like a ‘30s melodrama though. It took me a second to get it because it is still recorded with modern audio and instrumentation, but it’s the sort of dramatic melody you only heard in the scores to movies that show on TCM. Hearing that makes even relatively normal twists feel extreme.
Sam journeys through the weird corners of the city, movies in the cemetery and parties in underground crypts. Weird, but they could still exist (and in the case of cemetery movies, they do). He also walks towards a matte painting at one point, so that’s cool. Old school camera tricks are so rare now that they’re surreal.
There’s a piano medley whose context I won’t spoil but it’s awesome. It does say something about the evolution of art. Maybe it is all the same.
There is a male gaze issue. Tailing someone is obviously a trope of the detective movie but Under the Silver Lake zooms right in on her ass. There is also an uncomfortable amount of nudity. Perhaps it was intentional to show so much nudity that it ceases being seductive and makes you empathetic for the naked women, or maybe that’s just my own empathy when I grow concerned women are being exploited. Sure, Garfield shows his ass too (and couldn’t show more and realistically get an R rating), but it’s no comparison to the amount of topless women.
One of Sam’s friends uses a drone to peep through women’s windows and Sam finds one clue while he’s jerking off. If only Sam Spade had rubbed one out, maybe he could have found the Maltese Falcon after all. There’s also violence against women as a plot device. I’m sure it’s condemned to the extent that murder is wrong, but when it’s combined with the nudity I’m not sure the film understands how delicate that is. But hey, maybe teenagers will DVR this when they hear about all the nudity and then they’ll end up getting exposed to art.
I can understand why Under the Silver Lake is a tough sell. It’s no one thing and all the things it is are an unusual combination. I enjoyed the experience, and tonally it’s not dissimilar from Inherent Vice which should help the marketing department out. There are enough problem spots to give that department pause though, so I understand why they’re taking their time with it.