It’s easy to be paranoid in today’s world of surveillance states, drones, NSA wiretapping, and Russian Facebook data hacks. Possible government conspiracies are right around every other corner, and a sudden disappearance could mean a quick move to a new city or something more sinister. It’s kind of romantic and exciting to wonder if all of this is part of some giant machine that, if only we could figure out how, we could break free of. Does our paranoia hint at something greater, or are we just searching for hidden meanings in coincidences when we should be spending our energy worrying about more important things? Somewhere in the middle lies David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a dreamy, disquieting film about the perils of seeking out a way through the maze.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) rents a small apartment in a complex surrounding a pool in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, right in the middle of what used to be a hotspot for old film studios. Sam spends his days casually seeking out hidden codes in the world around him, like Vanna White’s pattern of glances in Wheel of Fortune. One day, he meets a girl named Sarah (Riley Keough) living nearby. They spend the evening hanging out, and she invites him to do the same with her the next day – except, when he returns, she and everything in the house has vanished, leaving behind a box full of random items and a strange symbol on the wall. Obviously, Sam decides he’s going to find her.


“Our world is filled with codes, pacts, user agreements, subliminal messages,” the artist of a local conspiracy theory zine tells Sam as they discuss the possibility that everyone in Silver Lake is caught up in a web of codes and secrets, utterly unaware of what’s lurking beneath the surface. There’s a dog killer on the loose; a woman who wears only an owl mask and breaks into people’s houses to murder them; a local billionaire has gone missing; skunks run rampant around East L.A.; weird symbols keep appearing wherever Sam goes. He follows a group of girls to a pool party on a roof, he attends a rock show by a band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, a film screening in a graveyard. He walks and drives around in a sleepy haze, desperate to figure out what it all means, but not obsessive or driven enough to sit down and do it.

Garfield is good as straight-man Sam, as are most of the other actors he meets on his Inherent Vice-like dream-quest through the City of Angels. In fact, the simplest way to talk about this movie is to talk about it in the context of other films, because Under the Silver Lake is a kind of classic Hollywood Ready Player One. The beginning especially is a Turner Classic Movies I Spy treasure hunt (TCM is even name-dropped within the first fifteen minutes) referencing: Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, Sunset Boulevard, any movie filmed at the Griffith Observatory. Sam has posters for The Wolfman, Psycho, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon hanging in his house. He and Sarah watch How to Marry a Millionaire while eating saltines on her bed. A group of young people lean against a gravestone in one scene that turns out to have “Hitchcock” carved into it. Silver Lake housed a group of Hollywood’s first silent film studios, so, naturally, that history is still imbued into the landscape and into every frame of the film as well.


Many will definitely compare this to La La Land and not in a nice way – which isn’t entirely unwarranted. Under the Silver Lake uses L.A. like a ton of other movies use L.A. Instead of a character, like New York City often is depicted as, Los Angeles is a fugue of objectives that lead nowhere and people who flit in and out of the narrative. Something you see that looks a little mysterious might mean something, or it might mean nothing. Topher Grace, Jimmi Simpson, Zosia Mamet all appear and disappear, with little reason for their existence in the story except for the confusion it inspires in the main character, or the detail it adds to the movie’s aesthetic. Films like this about slow-burn conspiracies that take ages to unravel their cheeky premises rarely live up to all the work that goes into watching them get there, and Under the Silver Lake is no different. Its final resolution flops to the ground like an airless balloon after all the toil it took to find it.

But maybe the resolution isn’t the point (also something that’s been done before in other films), and it’s the disillusionment Sam feels – and, by default, the audience – that’s punishment for trying to stick his nose where he doesn’t belong. Maybe there are conspiracies and maps hidden on cereal boxes all around us, but whatever they are, they’re not for us. Keep living the dream, because the reality will only disappoint you.