Which brings me to “Under the Silver Lake.” Again: a lukewarm review. And, again: regret, almost instant. A single snarky line in particular makes me grimace: “One is tempted to guess that [Director David Robert] Mitchell gave an extra a line about the devastating impact of ‘the male gaze’ in order to inoculate himself from criticism for indulging relentlessly in it.”
This is deeply, unfairly wrong: indeed, almost an exact inversion of the film’s underlying theme. “Under the Silver Lake” is a celluloid tribute to the terrifyingly disposable treatment of women in Hollywood, and popular culture more generally.
The film focuses on Sam (Andrew Garfield), a Los Angeles slacker whose rent is so overdue he’s facing eviction. Rather than scraping together the cash needed to keep himself off the street, Sam goes down a rabbit hole of mysterious coincidences in an effort to find Sarah (Riley Keough), a beautiful neighbor who disappears without a trace. The haunting, nigh-on oppressive score by Disasterpeace and the omnipresent shadows reinforce that this is a noir, a look into society’s seamy underbelly.
And what is the seamiest, ugliest part of Los Angeles’s oversize underbelly? As the last couple of years have taught us — and decades of horror stories before that have suggested — it is the industry’s treatment of women. Throughout “Under the Silver Lake,” we see the way women are objectified and mistreated and, eventually, sacrificed, in the City of Angels.
Mitchell has a wry sense of the humor about the whole situation, as when Sam follows a parade of similarly shaped women marching down a random street in similarly short skirts to attend a casting call that appears to be located in a skeevy dude’s garage. The image would be hilarious if it weren’t so grotesque, a grim reminder of what altogether too many would-be starlets put themselves through in the slim hope of achieving lasting fame.
The way Mitchell shoots this scene is an invitation to leer — tight on one rear end, then a little low, angled up, emphasizing the curves of the multitudes — but, elsewhere, such ogling is frowned upon. At one point Sam, and a drinking buddy (Topher Grace) use a drone to spy on a woman who was, supposedly, a model or an actress or something at one point. Hot, in other words, and meant to be stared at. The drone focuses on the woman as she strips in what she assumes to be the privacy of her own home, but the joke’s on Sam and, by extension, us: As she begins to cry, weeping at her lost youth, her disappeared promise, her general sadness at what she’s been forced to do, we feel shame.
Occasionally, it’s a bit more surreal, as when Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten) — literally a girl wearing balloons at a rooftop pool party — dances to a pop ditty before standing still as the crowd pops her accouterments. In Los Angeles, everyone gets a poke at the hot young thing until she is deflated.
Occasionally, it’s a bit more literal, as when a group of glorified extras turn to prostitution, selling themselves as a dream come true, “Shooting Stars” available to fulfill any fantasy for a price.
As in any noir, the red herrings multiply. But the mystery of Sarah is in itself a red herring of sorts; the message of the movie is so clear once you realize that her disappearance matters not because of the secrets Sam is decoding but for a far simpler reason. Asking the frequency of Kenneth misses the point. The point is very clear, culminating in what amounts to a human sacrifice, a reminder that beauty has always appealed to the boundlessly rich and the boundlessly rich have always been able to do what they want sans consequences, no matter how insane their actions.
All of which is to say that focusing on the borderline lascivious manner in which Mitchell shoots these women, as I foolishly did after one viewing, commits the cardinal critical sin of confusing depiction and endorsement. “Under the Silver Lake” deserves better than half-considered dismissal.
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