Owl In Hand
Under The Silver Lake
USA 2017 Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Sometimes you come across a great movie in the least expected way. Now, I loved It Follows (reviewed here) and for a while I was waiting for a couple of things to happen... one was a sequel to this outstanding horror movie (I still can’t believe they’ve not turned it into a franchise yet) and also, to see whatever the next film by the writer/director of It Follows, David Robert Mitchell, happened to be. After a while I gave up on either option though and, I have to say, Under The Silver Lake didn’t even come onto my radar until a day or two ago (at time of writing).
You see, I love movie scores and the composer of the score to It Follows, a guy called Disasterpeace, also scored this movie. However, it wasn’t until I was reading the second volume of J. Blake Fichera’s Scored To Death books, which features interviews with a whole bunch of horror movie composers, that I realised both the director and composer had worked on another film together after that. So I immediately had to take a look at it and, around about 20 minutes in, I had to pause the movie so I could order the last cheap copy of the soundtrack CD on Ebay, because I already liked the music so much.
Now Under The Silver Lake is not a 'horror movie' but it’s a significant puzzle of a movie. I might liken it to the works of British director Peter Greenaway in some ways, not in terms of the visual or audio style but in terms of the mystery at the heart of the story and the... well, the resolution or lack of, as such. I would perhaps best describe this as a paranoid conspiracy movie set in modern times and highlighting contemporary themes and attitudes but viewed through a 1940s film noir sensibility.
Also, if you’re heavily into movies, you will find an awful lot of references to various works in film history from homages to Marilyn Monroe’s scenes from her unfinished movie Something’s Got To Give through to various Hitchcock thrillers and so on. Certainly, the hook of the movie is something which borrows liberally from a more formulaic style of movie making. Now, I’m determined not to spoil the film with any key revelations here because, more than most films, it trades on the sense of intrigue set up by the characters and situations which play out in some truly brain twisting ways on screen.
What I will say is that the lead protagonist Sam, is played by Andrew Garfield, who is nicely seen holding a Spider-Man comic in one scene (a role which he played in two previous films and will be reprising at the end of the year...assuming the post-pandemic cinema release schedules remain unchanged). He meets a girl by the swimming pool in his apartment building one night while he’s fulfilling the same role as the James Stewart character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a poster among many old movies posters up in his apartment) and becomes obsessed with her... more so when, the next day, Sarah (played by Riley Keough) disappears and may, or may not, have been burned to death in a car along with a missing billionaire.
From this point on, the film becomes an intriguing and very strangely shot fairground ride as Sam tries to find out what has happened to Sarah, as the film details his adventures which involve secret symbols, secret codes, a local comic book guy who produces a fanzine style comic book of the neighbourhood called “Under The Silver Lake”, a mythical naked lady Night Owl serial killer and...lots of other stuff which I won’t mention here.
The film is very well shot with slow zooms and camera movements on long shots which suck you into the movie in the way that lots of old movies used to but, few modern ones seldom do... at least using this particular aesthetic. There are even some nice, black and white animated segments which play out pieces of the comic book whenever somebody reads it.
The Hitchcock references continue with a shot of his grave stone in one sequence, a Vertigo shot where the camera is zoomed/pulled (you know, the one Spielberg later used in Jaws) and this goes for a lot of the music too, which I suspect is influenced in some of the scenes here by the great Bernard Herrmann. Indeed, a wordless and extended sequence where Sam follows three girls across town with just music is absolutely a stand in for the scene near the start of Vertigo where James Stewart follows Kim Novak’s character and Disasterpeace’s score in this sequence certainly gives off the same kind of vibe. Which is nice (and, as I said, had me reaching for ebay).
And that’s it... I’ve gone as far as I can without giving things away. The film is definitely ‘not safe for work’ as they say, in that there’s a lot of female nudity (absolutely not complaining about this) and even a couple of extremely gory scenes too, perhaps made more shocking because they aren’t occurring in a horror movie but something which is using the syntax of historic movies from a time where such violence would not be shown on screen (we’re talking almost Cronenbergian levels here, in a couple of scenes). And it’s a great movie. The ending gives us some sense of awkward resolution while, at the same time, probably leaving us with more questions than we might like. In that way, I suspect it’s a little like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which is another film which I believe won’t reward multiple viewings with anything like a clue as to what certain aspects of the movie were about (and which is all the richer for it). Still, I was totally captivated by Under The Silver Lake in the very best way and I would certainly recommend it to anyone with a love of cinema and an appreciation for the history of the art. And I’ll just leave it at that.