The Pitch: Following in the footsteps of The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, Under the Silver Lake is essentially David Robert Mitchell‘s take on the California stoner noir — a subgenre that’s seemingly becoming more and more popular as the years crawl on. Between days spent getting high, fucking around, and leering at female neighbors both young and old, Sam (Andrew Garfield) investigates the disappearance of his latest fixation, Sarah (Riley Keough). His quest leads him into a bizarre L.A. underworld rife with dog killers, homeless monarchs, and what may or may not be a billionaire death cult.
I Wish They All Could Be California Spider Women: As Rian Johnson did with Brick, Mitchell gives his neo-noir a distinctly Southern Californian makeover. The femme fatales are opportunistic scenesters, an informant for Sam is also a zine comic artist, and the antagonists often take the form of platitude-spewing hippies. This gives the film an unexpected — if sometimes lethargic — sense of humor, and compellingly contrasts with some of the more urgent moments, such as a show-stopping shootout that takes place on the water at night.
Gazed and Confused: During a rooftop party scene, someone casually says something about women in Los Angeles burning under the male gaze. While it’s just a random partygoer and not a main character, the line still shows that Mitchell is well aware of the toxic masculinity so often found in noir movies, horror movies (the genre where he made his first big splash with It Follows), and hell, just movies in general.
The male gaze becomes especially prominent as Under the Silver Lake progresses, and Sam’s makeshift investigation widens in scope. Without spoiling too much, we discover that, in addition to Sam being voyeuristic himself, straight white men have played an even larger part in pop culture than previously believed. But before Sam can fully absorb this revelation and the effect it’s had on him (not to mention millions of others in his demographic), that particular story thread is abruptly cut off, never to be further explored.
So what are we left with in terms of theme? Sam is a guy who, despite his many flaws, gets to easily have sex or fool around with virtually every woman he meets; the full-frontal female nudity far outweighs the full-frontal nudity. By the time the film ends, we’re unclear on its moral stance. Of course, Under the Silver Lake isn’t required to have any kind of moral stance, but it feels like a copout that Mitchell acknowledges the prevalence of the male gaze in the genres and industry he dabbles in — not to mention pop culture as an umbrella term — without otherwise commenting on it or interrogating it.
The Verdict: There’s no denying the visual flair of Under the Silver Lake. Its aesthetics alone are enough to sustain interest over its two-and-a-half hour runtime, but its hefty length also leaves a lot to be desired in its messaging, if only because Mitchell actually does begin to flirt with a grander purpose at a certain point in the film. As It Follows proved, it’s possible to traffic in ambiguity while still having a point.
Where’s It Playing?: Under the Silver Lake is now playing in limited theaters, before hitting VOD on April 23rd.