Under the Silver Lake: How A24 Buried a Diamond


In a year when A24 released The Souvenir, The Last Black Man in San Francisco (a personal favorite), Midsommar, The Farewell, The Lighthouse, and Uncut Gems, along with a handful of other critical jewels, the studio also reluctantly released a less warmly-received film: Under the Silver Lake. It’s unfortunate that Under the Silver Lake fell into what I would consider to be a turning point year for A24. 2019 is indubitably the best movie year in recent memory, and A24’s superhero-strong slate played a royal flush of a hand in determining that. Even more to Silver Lake’s chagrin, the movie was released in mid-April of that year, a release coinciding with a little-known and lesser-seen movie entitled Avengers: Endgame. This mysterious coincidence was no mistake on the part of UTSL’s distributing studio.

Under the Silver Lake was written, directed, and produced by David Robert Mitchell, following up his independent feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011) and his sophomoric break-out horror hit, It Follows (2015). The film stars Andrew Garfield, turning in a career-best performance as a disillusioned thirty-something pseudo-detective named Sam (not Spade), as he explores the seedy, Lynchian underbelly of Hollywood. While it’s impossible to attribute this film to a specific genre, Sam vaguely resembles L.A.-noir detectives Jake Gittes or Phillip Marlowe standing in a carnival mirror. He’s disheveled, noticeably thin, and sports nothing more than a pair of jeans and whatever t-shirt was at the front of his closet.

Loser turns detective in LA noir Under the Silver Lake: The Skinny
Andrew Garfield “Sam” is played in the vein of noir detectives previously played by Bogart, Nicholson, and Gould, but without the suaveness or debonair. In short, he’s a loser.

Sam’s journey in and around the east side of Los Angeles begins with a chance encounter with the devilishly delightful Sarah, played by Riley Keough, who is doing her very best Marilyn. The day after their first meeting, Sam returns to Sarah’s apartment to find it newly vacated. From here, Sam becomes our Alice, and ventures down the rabbit hole into a hellish wonderland, facing off against beautiful, nameless L.A. women, credited with such non-identifying nomenclature as “Balloon Girl” and “Shooting Star #1,” and friendlier male faces like Topher Grace’s hilarious “Bar Buddy.”

It would be a disservice to myself as a writer, to you as a reader, and to the film as a whole to summarize the “plot” of this film, as it simply doesn’t exist. The story slowly wanders behind Sam as he walks past fabricated clues, disposable women, and far-fetched theories in an attempt to reconnect with Sarah. Similarly, it would be derivative for me to explain all the codes Mitchell scattered within every frame of the film, as the subject has been explored in innumerable subreddits and video essays. If the meaning of every code and cipher is of interest to you, there are some great articles covering the matter, and you’ll find everything you need to know about the hobo code “///” and “<><>,” the 751 scoreboard and 76 cookie, Sarah’s dolls, E=EE, morse code in the fireworks, and animal symbols (Hint: Unicorn Tiger Snake Lion might match the title of the film.) I’ve already done the research, and I’m not particularly interested in the meaning of Mitchell’s cryptographs. What I’m interested in is why Mitchell stuffed every inch of the frame with secret messages, why the cult around this movie is so obsessed with solving them, and why these hyper-cognitive ideas may have pushed Hollywood’s buttons in the wrong way.

Under The Silver Lake (2018) - Projected Figures
From the first moments of the movie, David Robert Mitchell lets the audience in on Sam’s dirty little secret: he is the infamous Dog Killer.

The plot, as aimless as it may seem, cannot be compiled into a collection of sensical story beats, but can be explain in Sam’s characterization; the nature of his character results in the meandering, futile story choices. Sam is a misogynist who views women as dogs, conquerable and disposable. The reason almost no women in the film are named is because Sam never asks; he lustfully stares at their bosom or their butt, sometimes approaching them, other times not, but he’s never inquires about their name or their job (He only learns Sarah’s name because her roommate addresses her.) Sam wants to have sex with them and move along, in an almost fetishistic agenda of conquering every woman he comes across. This entire conquest is rooted in pain and self-loathing. The injuries that his grandparent’s terrier caused him as a child and the pain his girlfriend, cleverly credited as “The Girlfriend,” caused him when she broke up with him a year ago feels one and the same to him. Women bark at him when Sam follows one of his targets into the ladies’ room, Sam assaults two minors as they violate his car, and he carriers dog biscuits to lure dogs to their death as the identity-is-still-unknown “Dog Killer.” Everything in Sam’s world works to his convenience, a world constructed in his mind to serve his own selfish ambitions.

Sam, like many men of his generation, is unemployed and disgruntled about it, a dissatisfaction more evident by the constant barrage of question in some form of, “How’s work?” His girlfriend left him, he’s on the brink of eviction, and his mom won’t stop calling, all parts of a whole that make Sam feel like he is living “a bad version of the life [he’s] supposed to have.” Sam’s failure to exist as a function member of society drive him to a disenchanted madness, resulting in a chauvinistic, dog-killing, child-punching thirty-something who manufactures mysteries just to fill the void of a day. And hence unravels the events of the film: a journey across east L.A., filled with dangers, codes, and secret meanings, invented by our protagonist, who, in the end, learns that the striving to ascribe meaning to everything results in everything meaning nothing.

Mitchell seems as equally interested in modern men contriving their own disillusioned purpose as he is in the rejection of popular culture. The scene in which Sam awakes with his hand stuck to an Amazing Spider-Man comic, a callback to Garfield’s own time as the sticky-fingered web-slinger, only to remove and disregard the comic, revealing a mess of chewed bubble gum on his palm and fingers. There was no superpower, no special ability, just someone’s saliva-covered trash. This point is further emphasized by the casting of an underused Topher Grace, who briefly portrayed Eddie Brock/Venom in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007), and who frequently divulges into “We live in a society…” monologues while sipping beer and spying on women with Garfield’s Sam, both of whom are rejected by popular culture and left to rot in the Hollywood Hills.  This thematic philosophy comes to a head-smashing halt when Sam bludgeons the head of “The Songwriter.” Sam reaches the musician’s mansion after decoding a message in a song by Jesus and the Brides of Dracula. After a violent confrontation with “Jesus,” Sam learns that JATBOD did not write “Turning Teeth,” and it was actually written by an anonymous songwriter. Sam goes to see The Songwriter, portrayed in heavy prosthetic by Jeremy Bobb, who reveals that he is responsible for all the art Sam holds dear. He plays an oeuvre of his pop hits through the decades, including a piano rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” which was especially painful for Sam, who’s apartment walls sport a signed poster of Kurt Cobain. In his anger, Sam takes Cobain’s own Fender Mustang and smashes the head of the industry man in a violent fashion that surely would have made Kurt proud. In his newfound sense of gory, bloody clarity, Sam learns an important lesson: everything we love in the world, from Spider-Man to genre-defining rock anthems, was created by a sad old man, pushing out idle content sometime “between a blow job and an omelet,” earning a paycheck.

AURORANOCTE FILMS — “Only I know the secrets of Silver Lake.” Under...
Sam, now homeless, jobless, and purposeless, is finally happy in the last frames of the film. He has decided to stop playing the game.

No wonder the critics were divided on this one.

The presentation of Mitchell’s third feature is like getting into Harvard, earning your PhD, and writing your thesis on why Harvard sucks, or like blatantly referencing and ripping off Hitchcock for 60 minutes, making your audience feel so smart, understanding all the references, only to reveal, in the 25th hour, Hitchcock himself, buried under the earth, with only a tombstone to show for it. “A lot of skunks in Los Angeles. Especially on the east side,” says Sam, answering the second most frequented question of the film: “What stinks?” I wonder who Mitchell was talking about there? With Under the Silver Lake, the high school freshman David Robert Mitchell told a joke, and the whole table erupted with laughter, and the senior table, the skunks, across the cafeteria, made up of Hollywood big wigs and critics, scowled. They didn’t get the joke. They weren’t even invited to the table. There mere existence of UTSL creates a cool kids club, perpetuated by Letterboxd users, video essayists, and film podcasters who kept Fight Club on repeat in their dorm room and heralded Damien Chazelle’s 2022 masterpiece Babylon as such. According to Mitchell, everything we experience is a game, but you can’t just stop playing. You don’t even know you’re in a game; you have to play to figure it out. When you begin to play, and realize how corrupt and manipulative and all-consuming the game is, only then can you log off.

Sam is a bad person. He’s chronically paranoid at best, a murderer at worst. The speech he gives to Riki Lindhome’s “The Actress” is eerily similar to Sean Parker’s paranoid monologue at the dinner table in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), in which Justin Timberlake’s Parker delivers an obsessively distrustful speech about the corruption of the system to a cohort of young stars, including Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin; and so, the circle is complete, and the cynicism Fincher consistently brings to table is absorbed by his younger colleagues like Mitchell. In The Social Network, we get to brush Sean off as obsessive and paranoid; his last scenes comes in a jail cell, prison phone in one hand, coke still smeared on the other, and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg gets to brush him off for exactly what he is: paranoid. In Under the Silver Lake, we don’t get to brush off the nervous breakdown; we take part in it. There’s no escaping the paranoia all around Sam, as Mitchell forces us to become him, and face every apparent mystery and conspiracy head on, and that’s the hardest pill to swallow.

Under the Silver Lake debuted at Cannes in May of 2018, and was first scheduled to arrive in theaters in June of the same year, but due to A24’s lack of confidence in the film, was delayed to December 2018, and again to April of 2019. It released one week before one of the largest cultural phenomenon of the 21st-century, Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, and earned a measly 2 million dollars on an 8 million dollar budget, and with this, A24 disposed of the film; much like our friend Alfred, the film was dead and buried. Since then, the film has gained a cult following, with many cinephiles relentlessly dissecting the codes and messages within the film, only to learn what Sam took so long to discern for himself: the only way to win is not to play. David Robert Mitchell told a joke, and not everyone thought it was funny. For those who did, it was the funniest joke they’d ever heard, and for those who didn’t, they didn’t even crack a smile. “We crave mystery, cause there’s none left,” Bar Buddy tells Sam. We crave mystery, and therefore, create it. But as Balloon Girl says,“There’s nothing to solve, you know? It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” Maybe that’s true. But if you take the time to sit back and listen to Mitchell’s joke, you cannot help but feel yourself pulled to ponder the punchline: “What was that parrot saying?”


Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!


Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!

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