Under the Silver Lake, Under the Silver Lake, Under the Silver Lake, what to say about Under the Silver Lake?
Well, it’s a little weird for a start.
It’s deliberately weird though so it succeeds in this respect and this is actually a tricky thing to manage on screen. There have been films that have pulled it off, things like 2001, Annihilation, The Prestige, Donnie Darko, Tale of Tales and much of the work of David Lynch but then there are movies like The Box, Mother!, The Fountain, Southland Tales and much of the work of Terry Gilliam that don’t completely work* Unfortunately Under the Silver Lake fits best in this second list. It has had some terrible reviews and curiously, despite heading for a wide release last week, has apparently failed to make it into any cinemas. Certainly I couldn’t find a screening anywhere near me and near me means anywhere within a twenty mile radius of a little town called London. Instead the film dropped quietly on iTunes.
It has to be said that if you are going to make a film like this; mixing the supernatural, implausible science, unexplained occurrences, monsters, prophesy, metaphor, random interactions, nonsensical human responses and/or talking animals, then you rarely find universal adoration. These kinds of films always divide opinion and even those movies I first mentioned have their detractors. Likewise every one of the movies I have listed above, from the strong to the weak, have elements to recommend them. In the end how well these films are received generally has more to do with the viewer than the film makers. If you are open to some kooky bushwa then you’ll probably go with it, if not then you’ll lose patience very quickly.
Flawed as it is, Under the Silver Lake never failed to keep my interest. It starts with LA layabout Sam having a brief, flirty but chaste, dalliance with a girl in his apartment block. Returning the next day with an expectation of something a little more he finds she has gone. The rest of the film then sees him turn into a tatty sneakered gumshoe as he trails around a seedily secular city of angels trying to find out what happened to her. Driven by lust or by finally having a purpose he stumbles into some kind of conspiracy that soon becomes his obsession. Along the way he encounters urban sprawl, urban myths, urban pirates, urban prophets, urban wildlife, underground parties, underhand dealings and unbelievable plot points. There’s a pattern to all of it but you never quite know where it’s going next.
The resolution when it comes feels a little bit of a let down but I didn’t see it coming and Sam, as played by Andrew Garfield is a compelling lead. With the best of these types of films, repeat viewings always add things but in this case I think another go round would annoy me. In the end much of the peculiarity feels a little forced and the movie is oddly muted emotionally. The film is getting compared to the aforementioned Southland Tales, which was widely derided, as like that film this is considered a disappointing follow up to a promising director’s debut movie. Under the Silver Lake comes from David Robert Mitchell so it follows It Follows. I have to say that Under the Silver Lake is not even as good as Southland Tales though, which I enjoyed, because it isn’t quite as far out there. This film is more bizarre than it is surreal with most of what happens on screen not actually being impossible, even if it is decidedly odd. The occasional hallucinations aside the hardest thing to explain here is why the women keep barking like dogs.
Which brings us to the genuine problem; the woman.
The women, the women, the women, what to say about the women?
Well, the gender representation is poor.
It is possible that this film is trying to make some kind of statement about the male gaze and sexist depictions of women but whatever the intention it just ends up appealing to the male gaze and is full of sexist depictions of women. Ironic or otherwise, practically every female in this film is depicted as a sex object and they are generally wearing very little, if any, clothes. This may be explainable but it is inexcusable. There are films were the female nudity is defensible; Blade Runner 2049, Ex Machina, but here I proffer no mitigation. The women here do have agency within the context of the plot but they are completely manipulated by the narrative. It is this treatment of its female characters, more than any quirky weirdness, that capsizes the boat.
*I’m hesitant in criticising Terry Gilliam because 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King are great and Time Bandits and Brazil are close to greatness but for Brian there’s a Baron Munchausen.