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Film / Under the Silver Lake

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"Our world is filled with codes, subliminal messages from Silver Lake to the Hollywood Hills."

"Why do we assume that all this information is what we're told it is? Maybe there are people out there who are more important than us, more powerful, communicating things in the world that are meant for only them and not for us."

Under the Silver Lake is a 2018 American film written and directed by David Robert Mitchell.

It stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, an affable but aimless man who sets out on a quest to find Sarah (Riley Keough), the woman he met the night before in his apartment complex's swimming pool after she goes missing. As he combs through Los Angeles searching for clues with the help of his friend (Topher Grace), he stumbles upon a larger, more sinister conspiracy than he ever imagined, involving billionaires, celebrities, urban myths, and even pop culture as we know it.

Under the Silver Lake contains examples of:

  • The '90s: The film portrays Silver Lake as obsessed with vintage culture. Sam appears particularly stuck in the 90s. He's a huge fan of Nirvana, retro gaming, vinyl records and Wheel of Fortune. He goes to a club on "old music day" and dances to rock hits from the 90s. Even the conspiracy that he investigates hides clues referencing old Hollywood and 90s nostalgia.
  • Actor Allusion:
  • Allegorical Character: The Songwriter, a wealthy old man who influences younger generations into believing they're being counter-cultural by patronising hit songs when they're actually marching in lockstep with consumer culture.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Sam has sex with all the women in the movie. He also sees Sarah in her bikini and goes out on a date with her, but doesn't actually have sex with her, though she is part of a sex cult of sorts.
  • Ambiguously Human:
    • It is never revealed whether the Owl's Kiss is a real supernatural creature or just a masked Serial Killer with an unusual modus operandi.
    • The Songwriter. Assuming he really did write all the hit songs of the last three generations as he claims - plus at least one classical song - and to be both connected and in-demand long enough to have influenced said generations, he'd have to be well over 100. He even hints that he'll go on to influence future generations with new songs. Not to mention having the kind of creative range needed to churn out several unique tunes every year stretches the logic of how much mental capacity a normal person could possess. Adding to this is that when Sam bashes his head in, his skull is completely hollow.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: Balloon Girl tells Sam that it's pointless to question things too much because she believes that there is no deeper meaning to life and the most we can make of our short existence is to enjoy every moment of it—in her words, "fuck, have fun, and be free." This is presented as a more reasonable perspective on life than Sam's unhealthy obsession with solving hidden mysteries and the much more cynical hedonism of the cultists.
  • Apophenia Plot: Subverted - initially it looks like the main character is inventing the "mystery" to keep himself amused. He makes bizarre connections between the disappearance of a local girl, the death of a millionaire, creepy urban legends of Los Angeles, video games, drawings on cereal boxes, etc. However, eventually he does discover a conspiracy... either that, or he eventually goes off his rails.
  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: The cultists are a group of rich men who are so bored and disillusioned with their privileged lives that they have decided to commit elaborate ritual suicide, believing that death is merely a gateway to another, more fulfilling state of existence.
  • Blindfolded Trip: The hobo king leads Sam blindfolded to a secret underground base.
  • Bookends:
    • The film opens with a shot of some graffiti on a cafe window warning of the Dog-Killer. By the end of the film it has been scrubbed away somewhat.
    • Sam comes home to a notice that his rent is overdue. He ignores it and spies on his topless neighbour. The film ends with Sam's landlord deciding to forcibly evict him as Sam watches from his neighbour's balcony, himself topless.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Silver Lake is extremely gentrified, and everyone seems to be some sort of hipster artist, actor or performer.
  • Buried Alive: The cult members entomb themselves alive with a harem of beautiful women and a copious amount of luxuries to make their passing into the next world as pleasant as possible.
  • Call-Back: Sarah tells Sam that the greatest pleasure she's ever experienced was having crackers with orange juice. Once Sam accepts that she's out of his reach forever, he buys some crackers and orange juice as a tribute to her.
  • Casting Gag: Sam's hipster friend is played by Topher Grace. Andrew Garfield is best known for playing Spider-Man, while Topher Grace once played his nemesis Venom.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The disappearance (and eventual discovery of the death) of Jefferson Sevence, and his daughter Millicent's presence in the circle of personalities Sam keeps running into. At first they seem like a parallel story in the backdrop of Sam's search for Sarah. Turns out, Sarah and Jefferson's deaths were faked together so that she could become one of his harem brides.
  • Color Motif: The colour white shows up a lot. Sarah is always seen in white clothes and has a white dog. Jesus and the Brides wear white costumes. The tombs all have white interiors.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Sam tries to get the clerk to connect him to the Comic Man by handing him a five-dollar bill.
  • The Conspiracy: Sam is convinced that Sarah's disappearance is connected to a vast conspiracy. He's right - but it turns out Sarah willingly disappeared into, to become one of Jefferson Sevence's harem wives.
  • Conspiracy Theorist:
    • Sam believes that popular culture is full of hidden messages and codes that can only be understood by a select few, and only becomes more and more fixated on deciphering these clues as the story progresses.
    • Comic Man is an even more extreme example of this trope, having dedicated his entire life to collecting and over-analyzing enormous amounts of pop-cultural artifacts and locking himself in his house out of fear that he will be killed by the conspiracy if he ever goes out. Even with his paranoia, he ends up dead at the hands of the Owl's Kiss.
  • Daydream Surprise: Twice are we fooled into thinking a scene is actually happening while it was Sam daydreaming.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Sam does not get back together with Sarah, because she was never really interested in him to begin with.
  • Dissolve: The movie features noticeable long dissolves, e.g. in the Nightmare Sequence where Sam walks down the park to see Sarah with a corpse.
  • Double Standard: Violence, Child on Adult: Averted when Sam beats up two vandalizing kids in the street.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Millicent Sevence is fatally shot while swimming naked, and she sinks to the bottom of the reservoir in a pose mirroring Sam's favorite Playboy cover.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Sam only spent one night with Sarah but that's enough for him to go on a long, increasingly complicated quest to find her after she goes missing. It's implied that he doesn't actually care that much for Sarah herself, and his obsessive focus on rescuing her is merely an attempt to find a purpose in his otherwise aimless life. When he finally gets into contact with her, she's surprised he was even looking for her in the first place, because they hardly know each other.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Sam first appears vacantly staring at some girls working in a café, showing the audience that he's a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander who is driven by his base desires.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Hobo King is involved with the conspiracy to an extent, but he only comes close to killing Sam when he briefly believes that he's the Dog Killer.
  • Face Cam: Used for Sam's Impairment Shot after the effects of the drug-laced cookie kick in.
  • Face-Revealing Turn: In a Nightmare Sequence of Sam's, he sees Sarah from behind as she is devouring a corpse in the park. When she turns around, it turns out to be an unknown man instead.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • Jesus is a pretty guy with a finely-toned body. When Sam interrogates him in a toilet, we get a good look at the massive pile of shit he just made.
    • Millicent is a babe, but seeing her naked corpse is chilling to say the least.
  • Fanservice: Half the female cast are seen near-naked and the other half are seen completely naked. Sam himself is blessed with the boyish good looks of Andrew Garfield and is seen in various states of undress, with his rear end getting a few shots.
  • Film Noir: The film riffs on noir trappings in an updated setting, with a detective searching for clues in the underbelly of Los Angeles, dealing with mysterious women and shadowy killers.
  • First World Problems: The Cult is full of wealthy people who believe that since they have everything and still feel unhappy, they should ascend to some mystical plane of existence rather than try to make the world a better place.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: The Owl's Kiss attacks people wearing only a face mask.
  • Gorn: The scene where Sam smashes the Songwriter's head in is extremely graphic.
  • Groin Attack: When Sam accosts a girl in a bathroom while trying to get answers about Sarah, she just knees him in the crotch and disables him instantly.
  • The Hedonist: It eventually turns out that sheer hedonism is the primary motive of the cult that is behind the conspiracy. Despite all their talk about ascending to a higher plane of existence, their entire religion ultimately boils down to unrestrained indulgence in their carnal desires, and the hope that even more pleasures await them in their next life.
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • Millicent Sevence is shot and killed after telling Sam what she knew. Sam is shot at by the same assailant, but he manages to escape.
    • Comic Man is found dead in an apparent suicide, but Sam discovers he was killed by the Owl's Kiss.
    • Sam manages to escape this fate, not once but twice. The third time, the Hobo King warns him not to divulge anything of what he's seen to anyone, and threatens he'll end up dead. Sam agrees, and that's enough to convince the Hobo King to let him go.
  • Homage:
    • When Sam spies on his neighbor with binoculars, he's in the same pose as James Stewart's character from Rear Window. Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock receive shout-outs later in the film.
    • When Sam dreams of Sarah swimming in the pool, her pose is identical to a scene from Marilyn Monroe's unfinished film Something's Got to Give. Sarah is made to look like Monroe in the sequence.
    • Given the neo-noir setting, Sam's name is likely a nod to iconic noir/hardboiled detective Sam Spade.
  • Horrible Hollywood: Hand in hand with Mystical Hollywood detailed below. Silver Lake is grotesquely gentrified, a Dog Killer is roaming the streets, a seemingly mystical being called Owl's Kiss is killing people off, even the most respected actresses moonlight as private escorts and everyone is either miserable, unsuccessful, or in an elaborate death cult.
  • Hypocrite: Sam gives a short rant about hating the homeless, but he's about to be evicted himself.
  • Identification by Dental Records: Invoked. The cult faked the death of Jefferson Sevence by leaving most of his teeth, some skin and secondary organs at the crime scene.
  • Idiot Ball: Sam would probably have gained answers much quicker if he didn't accost Sarah's roommate in the women's restroom before manhandling her for understandably giving him attitude. The same roommate appears towards the end and seems much less hostile, so her rudeness wasn't likely her natural disposition.
  • Implacable Man: Subverted almost to the point of hilarity. From what we hear and see of the Owl Woman it is reasonable to think that this will be one of the primary challenges for Sam to deal with. Instead, Sam just points a gun at her which makes her immediately retreat and never be seen again. This lends credence to the theories that the importance of this whole plotline lies rather in the symbolic sphere.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Sam beats the Songwriter to death with Kurt Cobain's guitar.
  • It's All About Me: Jefferson Sevence abandoned his wife and children, leading them to believe he'd died a grisly death all so he could sleep around with women young enough to be his daughters, none of whom have any agency beyond him. He even allowed his daughter to be killed just to keep his whereabouts hidden. All because he felt entitled to a life better than the one he had, which happened to be a pretty damn sweet life.
  • King of the Homeless: The Hobo King who takes Sam to the underground tunnels.
  • Loser Protagonist: Sam appears to have dropped out of his life ever since he broke up with his girlfriend. In spite of his nice apartment, muscle car and no lack of cash for bars and prostitutes, he has no job and can't make his rent or car payments. He spends his time slacking off, watching old movies, playing video games, and spying on his neighbors while hiding the fact that he's spiraling out of control from everyone he knows. He seems completely unconcerned with the fact that he's about to be evicted.
  • Male Gaze: One day, Sam notices a model walking down the street in a short, tight skirt with the camera lingering on her behind for quite some time.
  • Men Act, Women Are: Sam is interested in Sarah just... because, and while she did choose to disappear, she ultimately didn't get to choose the circumstances and was merely instructed to act as a harem member for a wealthy, influential man. In fact, this is one of the main criticisms levelled at the movie: that only men (the Hobo King, the Comic Man) have agency, while the women are either symbols, ciphers, or totally shallow.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Sarah's presumed kidnapping, and Sam's investigation into it, triggers a whole series of crimes: murders perpetuated by actors human and real and the unveiling of more than one secret death cult. Although it's ultimately left ambiguous whether what Sarah and the cult are doing is a crime: she chose to disappear, but the bacchanal cult is more than a little disturbing.
  • Mockstery Tale: The movie has the form of a detective story, but in fact, it is more of a commentary on Hollywood, consumerist culture, and existential need for mysteries and "true meanings" where there are none.
  • Mystical Hollywood: The Hollywood depicted in the film is inhabited by a murderous owl-woman, an ancient songwriter who claims to be responsible for every major hit in modern history, and a cult of millionaires and celebrities trying to obtain godhood.
  • Night Swim Equals Death: Millicent gets shot to death while Skinny Dipping with Sam.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Jefferson Sevence, the bearded, globetrotting daredevil billionaire, is clearly based on Richard Branson.
  • No Name Given: Most of the characters in this film lack a name, and are only credited as Comic Man, the Actress, the Songwriter etc. Also extends to Sam as well: while he is named "Sam" in the script, no character actually says his name at any point in the film.
  • Obliquely Obfuscated Occupation: Sam has apparently stopped working, perhaps as a result of his sorrow over losing his girlfriend, but hides this fact from everyone he knows. When asked what he does, he refuses to say, so we don't even know what he used to do. His friends "Bar Buddy" and Allen reference working, but they also never reveal what they do to afford their bohemian lifestyles in Silver Lake.
  • Ominous Owl: Owl's Kiss, a mythical half-woman, half-owl creature who kills men in their sleep.
  • Paranoid Thriller: Sam is getting increasingly paranoid, believing that there are secret messages hidden in pop culture and encountering bizarre characters like the Hobo King and the Owl's Kiss. He seemingly gets to the bottom of the mystery, but there are some implications that he actually went off his rails.
  • Pop Culture Symbology: The movie lives and breathes this trope: the protagonist, an amateur detective, attempts to solve a mystery by finding clues in pop music played backwards, video game magazines, and images on cereal boxes. Surprisingly, he succeeds in finding the answer... or does he?
  • Properly Paranoid: Comic Man's paranoia turns out to be completely justified, as he's killed by Owl's Kiss after passing his knowledge onto Sam.
  • Really Gets Around: Despite his somewhat scruffy appearance, poor personal hygiene and lack of employment, Sam ends up making out or having sex with a good chunk of the women who cross his path during the film.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Songwriter delivers a particularly scathing one to Sam, telling him that the supposedly counter-cultural music he idolizes so much is ultimately just another part of the entertainment industry that doesn't actually challenge the status quo and exists only to make money.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The film leaves a number of mysteries unresolved:
    • What is the Owl's Kiss?
    • Who is the Dog Killer? It's teased that it might be Sam himself, but not confirmed.
    • What is the parrot saying? It's given an unreveal in the end.note 
    • Who was the pirate man?
  • Rockers Smash Guitars: Sam destroys Kurt Cobain's Fender by repeatedly sending it down on the Songwriter's head.
  • Room Full of Crazy: The Comic Man's bedroom.
  • Rule of Three: Various sets of three women crop up throughout the film: Sarah and her two roommates, the Balloon Girl and her two fellow actresses/prostitutes, and three women who joined the cult as harem brides.
  • Running Gag: Even days after Sam gets sprayed by a skunk, even after washing off with the traditional tomato juice bath, the people he meets keep asking him if he's aware that he smells bad.
  • Satellite Love Interest: All of the women Sam has any interest in or sleeps with, including maybe even Sarah.
  • Scenery Censor: When Sam and Millicent are skinny dipping, some convenient bubbles obstruct Sam's genitals, and a cloud of blood obscures Millicent's crotch.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • The third child vandal runs away after watching Sam beat down his two compatriots.
    • The Owl's Kiss stalks toward Sam with a knife, but when he turns and points a gun at her, she chirps in surprise and runs away.
  • Secret Room: The Comic Man has a secret room behind his bedroom from where he manages the surveillance system of the house.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: At the end of the film, Sam has finally uncovered the truth about the conspiracy. But he doesn't get back together with Sarah (and couldn't rescue her even if either of them wanted to), still doesn't know what do to with his life, and is now technically homeless, having been evicted from his apartment, leaving him slightly worse off than he was in the beginning.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Jesus and the Brides are implied to be in league with some secret cabal, but when Sam accosts Jesus, he finds out that they know nothing and their hit song was handed to them pre-written.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Sam has a number of posters on his walls of classic movies.
    • Bar Buddy plays Super Mario Bros. on Sam's Nintendo Entertainment System. Some Nintendo Power magazines also show many vintage games.
    • A The Legend of Zelda map has plot significance.
    • Sam meets the prostitute/actresses beside a grave reading "Hitchcock," (which is not actually the director's grave in real life).
    • Sam has to rub a bust of James Dean at the Griffith Observatory.
    • Sam is a big fan of Nirvana and has a poster of Kurt Cobain on his wall, signed by Frances Cobain.
    • Sam has analyzed every single episode of Wheel of Fortune
    • The Comic Man has life casts of various celebrities on his walls.
    • The Songwriter plays various hit songs and memorable themes, most notably "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the theme from Cheers.
    • Sam and Sarah watch How to Marry a Millionaire. The film poster also appears.
    • Sam lives at apartment 23.
  • Skinny Dipping: Sam and Millicent go skinny dipping in Silver Lake.
  • Smelly Skunk: After being pursued by a shadowy figure, Sam ends up accidentally scaring a skunk into spraying him. The next scene is Sam in the bath, trying out the Tomato Skunk Stink Cure, while talking to the Actress, who brought him the tomatoes. It doesn't work all that well.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Sam is this to a T, and even the "hero" part is debatable. If his voyeuristic ogling of Sarah and his older topless neighbor doesn't give you a hint from the outset, the scene where he viciously beats two preteen vandals certainly will. To say nothing of how he pulverizes the Songwriter's head, or how he might be the infamous dog killer.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sam is this at best, ogling Sarah through his binoculars well before they strike up a conversation.
  • Stepford Smiler: Sarah seems to be resigned to her fate, but her request to talk to Sam in private and the change of tone in her voice as she asks him if he thinks she made the wrong decision imply she did have second thoughts.
  • Subliminal Seduction: Sam looks for clues by playing a record backward.
  • Succubi and Incubi: Owl's Kiss is very reminiscent of those: she seduces men, and then kills them in their sleep.
  • Sunshine Noir: The film has many noir elements and takes place during the daytime for about half its run time.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: There are some hints that Sam may be going off his rails due to his breakup with a girlfriend, and telling us a very unreliable account of the story:
    • When Millicent is killed, her body in the lake looks exactly like Sam's favourite Playboy cover, implying that he could have fantasized the whole thing.
    • Sam is accosted by both the Owl's Kiss and a shadowy figure, who immediately disappear without a trace.
    • The conspiracy itself appears increasingly surreal and improbable, and surprisingly, all of it revolves around Sam's prized items, with the clues hidden in his favourite pop music and even his Nintendo Power magazine.
    • Finally, there is the Dog Killer story, which is introduced as a part of the conspiracy, but never actually resolved. If Sam is really the Dog Killer, it indicates he's been having mental health problems ever since his breakup.
  • Title Drop: Sam reads a comic out loud about secrets hiding "Under the Silver Lake."
  • Tomato Skunk Stink Cure: Sam takes a tomato sauce bath after getting sprayed in the face by a skunk. He spends the rest of the film being told that he smells bad.
  • The Un-Reveal: Sam wonders what his neighbor's parrot is saying through much of the film. In the end, he sleeps with the neighbor to find out what it's saying. She says she doesn't know.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Sam really doesn't have any redeeming traits to speak of, so the numerous misfortunes he endures are a constant source of humor.
  • Unwanted Rescue: It is eventually revealed that Sarah was not kidnapped, but joined the cult voluntarily, and thus never needed to be saved. However, it's played with in that it isn't clear in her and Sam's final conversation if she regrets what she's done or would want to be saved if she could be - she simply says that it's pointless to try.
  • Vertigo Effect: Used to show Sam in confusion when witnessing the squirrel fall to its death in the courtyard. It's an obvious homage to the Trope Maker.
  • Video Phone: Sam talks to Sarah in the crypt via one of these.
  • World of Mysteries: Parodied and deconstructed: the protagonist Sam sees Hollywood and Los Angeles as this, encounters some weird characters and finds hidden messages... however, there are certain hints that he's going off his rails, and at least some of this stuff is happening in his head.
  • Would Hurt a Child: After finding his car defaced, Sam tracks down the 12-year-old vandals and pummels two of them mercilessly.

You/All alone. note 
You and I/Two of us note teeth note 
Sigh/Oh dear note 
Siamese/Kitty cat note 
Forever...linked note 
From...tusk to tail note 
In tales of and I note 
Jesus and the Brides, "Turning Teeth" note 


Video Example(s):


Nintendo Power Magazine

Sam combines a level map from Nintendo Power Magazine with another map from a cereal box to find the secret hideout of the cultists.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / PopCultureSymbology

Media sources: