Under the Silver Lake (2018) is a homage to noir cinema. There’s a great performance by Andrew Garfield, a slick Hitchcockian film-score, and constant references to classic noir films, male desire, beautiful women, and unhappiness.
Right from the opening, which quotes Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the scene is set for Sam’s journey. We get the usual noir runaround. There’s a bit of Harper here, The Big Lebowski, some magic, some horror, a bit of this, a bit of that, Magnolia, and North By NorthWest. This genre, or sub genre of crime / detective fiction (take your pick), continually reinvents itself: the slick talking hardboiled detective, the bedraggled has-been character of neo Noir, to the professional robot killer of sci-fi noir, and the high schooler protagonist of Brick. This time around it’s Postmodern Noir, a thirty-something millennial, ‘out of it’.
Noir is always about a protagonist who is essentially lost, disconnected from the world, the search for whatever mystery is presented in the story is little more than a meandering McGuffin — the real search is one of personal revelation, truth and happiness. Insight. This is why, simple or complicated, noir stories are not about plots that are supposed to make complete sense. It’s a journey, that’s all. The story is a metaphor for life, like all fiction, but more so with noir. It’s a chase, but the character only realises at the end that they’re chasing themselves.
There’s a lot going on in, Under the Silver Lake. Sam’s obsession evokes Close Encounters — but this time he’s obsessed with women, one particular women, and conspiracy theory. It’s about the search for an unobtainable ideal. The quest for happiness is the search for magic ingredient ‘X’. Unobtanium. He’s stuck in a loop, unable to get over his ex-girlfriend. Now, he believes, life is passing him by. He mourns the life that could have been. A dream that will never happen. His ex is literally the idealised face on an advertising billboard.
All of a sudden, he meets a beautiful women. This is ‘the one’ he believes. There’s a real connection this time…
Sam is a flawed character. I can understand why some viewers might find him unlikeable. I did empathise with him, and even when I didn’t, I did always found him interesting to watch. Noir stories, like this one, are usually first person stories. In Under the Silver Lake we’re witnessing Sam’s story. It is his POV. How he reacts to women, and how they react to him are part of his own life experience. I’m wondering, would a deveice like a voiceover have helped to convey this more clearly?
I’ve watched, and enjoyed, a lot of noir over the years. Noir deals with fear, betrayal, desire, distrust, cheaters, liars, and bullshit. Male insecurity and a kind of tongue-in-cheek gynephobia. The protagonist is often an anti-hero, a ‘washed up’ character, or what Hollywood might call a ‘loser’ (in other words he is not confident, rich, and handsome).
It’s the world itself — with its betrayals, distrust, cheats, liars, and bullshit — that the protagonist doesn’t get. In some ways the central character is a classic naïf. But, as always, the protagonist, somehow (does it really matter), returns full circle, back to the beginning. The same, but a little wiser. In this case it’s in a scene that is an oblique reference to, The Last Picture Show.