“Our world is filled with codes, subliminal messages from Silver Lake to the Hollywood Hills.”
–Comic Man, “Under The Silver Lake”
2018’s Under The Silver Lake, starring two-time Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, is the nexus-point where Comic Book CULTure and Conspiracy CULTure meet.
Much as 2014’s Birdman (my film analysis here) seemed to be a meta-commentary on one-time Incredible Hulk Edward Norton’s untimely exile from the Marvel movie franchise, so does Silver Lake seems to be a commentary on Garfield’s perhaps slightly premature exit as Spidey.
While Tobey Maguire’s & Tom Holland’s portrayal of the Webhead have both had an endearingly nerdy quality (Spider-Man III’s black-suited Jerk Parker notwithstanding), perhaps Garfield’s take was a bit too…realistic? And if not specifically realistic, perhaps the “superhero” tropes embedded within Under The Silver Lake might be the anecdote for more saccharine origin stories. For while both the film’s protagonist Sam and Peter Parker are intelligent misfits, their ultimate trajectories are quite different.
When the movie opens, Sam is apparently unemployed and on the verge of getting evicted from his Los Angeles apartment (he lives, of course, in Apt #23). He seems somewhat disaffected by the predicament he’s found himself in, and spends his time spying on the sexy older topless “Bird Lady” in the apartment across from him.
Sam’s peeping-tom proclivities, of course, places him firmly in Rear Window territory –unsurprising, as director David Robert Mitchell (from the 2014 sleeper horror hit It Follows) is quite unashamedly conducting a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock throughout (remember the “Bird Lady”?).
It’s at this point that I must point out that the lanky, slightly awkward Garfield has often been compared to classic Psycho actor Anthony Perkins–and in Under The Silver Lake he goes full Perkins, at turns sweetly shy then suddenly creepy and even menacing.
Sam’s attentions soon switch from Bird Lady to Sarah, a pretty new tenant in the apartment complex. But despite a highly romantic (albeit chaste) rendezvous at her place, the love story seems doomed—Sarah apparently has abruptly moved out.
And thus begins that classic movie trope of the earnest somewhat obsessed hero trying to solve the mystery of what happened to his Beloved. Sam will soon literally stumble from one bizarre scenario to another, literally trying to decode what has happened to Sarah. This quest places him squarely in Chapel Perilous territory, in the middle of a multi-tentacled conspiracy within the Hollywood Hills.
If this all sounds like the 2016 Shane Black flick The Nice Guys (which I’ve analyzed here)—you win the sawdust bunny! It’s incredibly like The Nice Guys, both films excruciatingly relevant in the Jeffrey Epstein/Harvey Weinstein era to the point where you have to wonder if both filmmakers had an inkling all that shit was going to be revealed to the public soon.
But Under The Silver Lake is also very similar to Daniel Clowes’ early 1990s comic book epic Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. Even the mini-comic featured throughout the film—about “The Dog Killer” and the “Owl Woman”-—brings to mind Velvet Glove. Whether or not Mitchell derived inspiration from the indie comic classic…if you like Under The Silver Lake, definitely check the Clowes graphic novel out!
That brings us to the persistent sub-plot of the movie…there is a serial killer of dogs on the loose, who has achieved urban legend status and has become the subject of the mini-comic published by “Comic Guy” (his actual name in the script).
WHO COULD THIS “DOG KILLER” BE?!
It’s a tribute to both Garfield’s acting and the dreamlike quality of the film itself that Sam can be more or less revealed as The Dog Killer by the end of the film (I warned you about spoilers, right?) and you’re still sort of sympathetic to him.
Sam’s occasional violent tendencies seemingly references that other sub-culture so intertwined with those of conspiracy theories and general geekery…incels. Because it’s made clear that in our “hero’s” mind, dogs represent women. (Was Norman Bates the first incel?)
To be clear: Sam does have sexual relations with women…but they mostly seem hollow, unfulfilling, and ultimately ending in rejection.
And here is where I think the real core message/meaning of the film lies. It’s not about the “conspiracy theories” per se, but instead relations between young men and women in our current society.
Sam—like Peter Parker—is clearly the “beta.” All the girls he goes after are go-getting starlets and/or escorts who might “entertain” a fuck or two with him but will always end up with Chads.
And at the heart of the conspiracy he unravels is a system where older rich Alphas basically monopolize the available market of nubile young women, keeping literal harems. (Stop me if this sounds familiar to you at all.)
Where does this leave our soon-to-be-homeless dog-killing disillusioned heartbroken protagonist at the end of the movie? He does exactly what I thought he would do…he has satisfying sex with the much older Bird Lady and de facto moves in with her just as he’s being evicted. (And thus “Norman” ends up with “Mom.”)
Per all the dog-killing, a morally ambiguous ending to be sure. But it’s clear per Mitchell’s storytelling that the entire world is sort of fucked anyway, eating its own young in a cynical never-ending retread of nostalgia.
Note: Initially, I wanted to cover all the symbolism and meanings of Under The Silver Lake in this post. But it’s so complex and filled with metatextual call-outs (I have about 5 pages of just initial notes) that I realize I could only do an introduction here.
So if this is a topic that interests you, let me know and I can perhaps break it up into some themed essays.