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Friday, February 23, 2024

Finding Madness and Conspiracy in the Underrated Thriller ‘Under the Silver Lake’

When it comes to storytelling, it’s often said that the journey matters more than the destination, and that’s why I think ergodic fiction is so satisfying to read. Exemplified by narrative puzzles like Ryan Hughes’ XX and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, these intricately crafted tales are defined by an intentional difficulty in actually figuring out what’s going on in the story – effectively making the reading itself a part of the creative process.

Unfortunately, when it comes to movies, studio expectations mean that ergodic filmmaking isn’t exactly a hot commodity, with most productions preferring to bet on conventional screenplays with easily understandable stories rather than anything that might turn off potential moviegoers. This isn’t always the case, however, and a great example of a filmmaker attempting to use ergodic storytelling elements on the big screen is David Robert Mitchell’s underrated conspiracy thriller, Under the Silver Lake.

A wildly creative neo-noir romp with plenty of unsettling moments, I think this cinematic fever dream might appeal to genre fans looking for something a little more esoteric than usual – though you shouldn’t go into the experience expecting a scare-fest on the same level as It Follows. Mitchell actually began working on the project soon after the success of his John Carpenter-inspired film, with the proposed movie being conceived as more of a meta-fictional satire of Hollywood and pop culture disguised as a reflection on paranoid conspiracy theories.

In the finished film, Andrew Garfield ended up starring as Sam, a thirty-something slacker living in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. In between reading about local legends and dodging his rent, Sam becomes infatuated with his neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough), only to be left baffled when she disappears out of the blue. Confused and with nothing better to do, Sam sets out on a paranoid quest to piece together what happened to her and inadvertently uncovers a deadly rabbit hole that might just lead all the way to the top.


SO WHY IS IT WORTH WATCHING?

Under the Silver Lake is best described as a thousand-piece puzzle that intentionally withholds corners, so it stands to reason that the flick’s critical reception was rather mixed. While some reviewers praised the film’s unorthodox storytelling and energetic direction, most folks simply couldn’t get around the cryptic plot and uneven tone.

And while I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to engage with the film’s absurd exercise in conspiratorial thinking, I personally appreciate how Mitchell refuses to hold viewers’ hands as he engulfs us in a dream-like version of Hollywood soaked in sex, intrigue and propaganda. It’s not every day that a screenplay can manage to entertain audiences with legitimately laugh-out-loud moments while also keeping them in a constant state of paranoia as they desperately attempt to derive meaning from recurring patterns like Sam himself.

And speaking of Sam, Andrew Garfield’s natural charisma elevates the entire experience by lulling you into a false sense of security as this utterly unhinged protagonist jumps from one insane situation to the next. From brutally beating up children to delivering deranged monologues about subliminal messages in media, I’m not sure that anyone else could have made such a complicated character so damn compelling.

As if that wasn’t enough, the picture is also impeccably shot, featuring some slick neo-noir imagery plucked straight out of LA postcards as Mitchell and horror veteran Mike Gioulakis guide us down an unnaturally sunny rabbit hole. You may have seen this Hollywood iconography before, but never in this eerie context.


AND WHAT MAKES IT HORROR ADJACENT?

From German filmmakers bringing their expressionist sensibilities to American cinema after the second world war to early twentieth century writers incorporating terrifying crimes into their gritty detective novels, Noir stories have always had a foot in the horror genre. That’s why it’s no surprise that Mitchell’s investigative thriller also delves into some deeply unsettling territory.

While there are some obvious moments of horror here, like the Owl’s Kiss murders and that existential encounter with The Songwriter, I’d argue that the psychological terrors behind societal manipulation and large-scale conspiracies are what make this movie so disturbing. Like the best conspiracy thrillers, Under the Silver Lake places us directly in the protagonist’s head as it explores the fragility of the human psyche and our willingness to see patterns where there might be none there.

Hell, the filmmakers even went so far as to hire a cryptographer to help scatter hidden messages throughout the picture, ranging from Morse code in the movie’s fireworks to ciphers in the city’s graffiti. That being said, if you set aside these esoteric references and the whole ergodic perspective, I think the secret to Under the Silver Lake‘s success lies in how the film is equally thrilling if viewed as a straightforward character study about a troubled young man losing his mind and reading way too much into the natural patterns surrounding him.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that this more active form of watching/deciphering a movie isn’t for everyone (and your enjoyment of this experience will likely depend on how willing you are to play along with Mitchell’s little game), but in a world where films routinely talk down to their audience and appeal to the lowest common denominator, it’s refreshing to see someone try something a little different. That’s why I think Under the Silver Lake is so much fun – not because it’s impossibly complex or even a perfect movie – but because it allows you to extract as much meaning from the experience as you want to.


There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

The post Finding Madness and Conspiracy in the Underrated Thriller ‘Under the Silver Lake’ appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.



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