A24's Most Off-Kilter Thriller Was Damnably Ahead of Its Time

Beware the Dog Killer.

A girl sinks underwater on the poster for 'Under the Silver Lake'
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Humanity’s search for meaning isn't inherently wrong. If one takes it too far, though, and tries to find codes and messages hidden in every single thing they see and love, then it becomes less a quest for fulfillment and more a narcissistic attempt to escape the malaise of modern life. More than a few movies have tried to explore that, but only a few have done so successfully.

Director David Robert Mitchell's underrated neo-noir, Under the Silver Lake, is one of them. Mitchell's bold, ambitious follow-up to his 2014 horror hit It Follows was deemed by many (including seemingly its distributor, A24) to be a lackluster directorial effort when it was released in 2019. The film has since emerged as a modern cult classic and has amassed a passionate assortment of defenders, most of whom have spent plenty of hours debating and discussing the meanings of its many unspoken mysteries and Easter eggs.

In a way, that's a tragically fitting fate for Under the Silver Lake, a movie about a guy who seems cursed to find hidden codes in everything.

Under the Silver Lake follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a listless millennial man barely scraping by in Los Angeles, whose interest in life is seemingly reignited when he shares a flirtatious nighttime encounter with his charming neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough). When Sarah mysteriously disappears the very next day, Sam takes it upon himself to find out what happened to her by using a cryptic message left behind in her abandoned apartment and a collection of other, seemingly disparate clues he discovers throughout his adventures across LA.

Trying to summarize everything else that happens from there would be a truly foolhardy endeavor. Like so many of the great, LA-set noirs that came before it, the film's scope is huge and its narrative unfathomably windy. The deeper into his investigation he gets, the more Sam begins to believe that Sarah's disappearance may connect to, among other things, the recent success of a goth rock band, a string of local dog murders, the re-emergence of a homicidal supernatural entity that may or may not be real, the death of a prominent billionaire, and a cereal box's map of Los Angeles. The film, to its credit, treats its many subplots as the zany detours that they are, and Mitchell uses them as an excuse to sprinkle Under the Silver Lake with moments of slapstick comedy and shocking horror.

Every apparent connection — no matter how thin — that Garfield's Sam finds that links back to his neighbor's disappearance only makes him even more certain in his belief that there are countless messages lying hidden in plain sight every day. He, consequently, seems less and less like a familiar movie detective and more like a normal, frustrated guy who has spent too long prizing the movies, TV shows, magazines, and video games he loves over everything else in his life. (What else could lead someone to actually believe that the key to solving a seemingly all-encompassing mystery lies in the pages of a vintage Nintendo Power magazine?)

Andrew Garfield gives a delightfully kooky, tortured lead performance in Under the Silver Lake.


In a post-QAnon world, it's hard not to look at Under the Silver Lake's story of seemingly outrageous conspiracy theories layered on top of each other and not cringe a little. That's where part of the film's power comes from, though. It manages to tap into a particularly 21st-century brand of paranoia and disillusionment in a way that almost no other movie does. As goofy and funny as the film is, it also further cements Mitchell as a horror filmmaker of considerable talent.

That's because Under the Silver Lake frequently feels like a horror film, and that’s not due solely to its moments of actual, nightmarish horror, but to the feelings it elicits. Ultimately, the movie answers every major question that Garfield's Sam has and validates his belief in unspoken conspiracies and hidden messages. In doing so, it destroys his already tenuous grip on life and eradicates what little optimism he may have still had — replacing it with an intense cynicism that seems terrifyingly justified.

And that is what makes Under the Silver Lake, its few stylistic and tonal flaws aside, such an unforgettable film. It's a thriller that explores the all-too-familiar, incredibly human desire to have our worldview validated — not by proving its paranoid, conspiracy-obsessed protagonist wrong, but by proving him right. The movie firmly believes that learning sinister messages really are lurking beneath society's slick surface, would be more horrifying than discovering there aren't.

Under the Silver Lake is streaming now on Max.

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