Author’s note- This article contains major spoilers!!!
There are some films which divide audiences upon their release, and Under the Silver Lake is one of these films. Some have hailed it a masterpiece, and others have labelled it as misogynistic, sexist and have criticised it for its use of the male gaze. It’s a little more complicated than the film being sexist.
It is clear that the film’s main character Sam (Andrew Garfield), is sexist and has an underlying distrust of women. We could argue that Sam holds a hatred towards women, but there is a deep reason for this which we will be exploring in this piece. The most important thing to note, is that we should know that the film’s director, David Robert Mitchell, doesn’t hold these same views that the main character does.
Set in sunshine world of L.A., the films follows twenty something Sam, who is intelligent young man who lacks any real motivation. He doesn’t have job, and he’s facing eviction from his apartment. You would think that the prospect of becoming homeless would spark something in Sam, but he makes no attempt to look for a job. In fact, we don’t even know what Sam used to do as a living. Of course, it doesn’t matter what Sam used to do, he is simply a representation of the Y Generation and the concept of masculinity in crisis.
Sam ticks off all the boxes of what some sociologists and psychologists would define as the typical millennial: He has this overwhelming sense of entitlement, he’s narcissistic, overly deterministic and over achieving. This isn’t to say that everyone who belongs to the Y Generation has these traits; but psychologist Jean Twenge (author of the 2006 book Generation Me) has observed this traits. And if the mainstream media are to be believed, the millennial generation are a bunch of snowflakes, who can’t seem to function in the ‘real’ world.
Of course; we can argue whether Under the Silver Lake is trying to reinforce this misinformed view of the millennial generation, or whether it is mocking this simplistic opinion of the Y Generation.
Sam spends his time watching old movies, drinking, getting high, and spying on his neighbours. Occasionally he has sex with a friend (Riki Lindhome), but there is no real meaningful relationship between the two of them. Sam simply uses her for sex or for company when he requires it. Sam is more concerned with the concept of his ideal fantasy woman, discussing how he used to masturbate to a Playboy cover girl (a blonde woman who is photographed under water).
He spies on an older woman who lives across from his apartment, as she tends to her parrots, walking around topless. To Sam, women really serve one purpose, to be objects of pleasure. The only woman he seems to have any real meaningful and deep relationship with, is his mother. Don’t they say, that a boy’s best friend, is his mother?
One day, he comes into contact with a beautiful young woman called Sarah (Riley Keough) who has moved into one of the apartment’s in the complex. Sam attempts to bond with her by paying attention to her dog (who is named after a Coca-Cola slogan), and is invited into Sarah’s apartment. They spend a night together, watching an old Marilyn Monroe movie and being intimate.
Sarah is the promise of meaning in Sam’s life, she represents everything he wants in a partner, even though she is clearly out of his league. Sarah is presented to us as a naive, vulnerable young woman, dressed in white. She is his princess peach that he must rescue. However, we must remember that the events of the film are told from Sam’s perspective, and he is a very unreliable narrator. The next morning, Sarah disappears. Sam sets off across L.A. to find her.
Sam is a representation of how men can become toxic and their world view can become warped, should their sense of purpose in life is taken away from them. Sam attempts to find a new purpose in his life (trying to solve what happened to Sarah), which he develops an unhealthy obsession with.
Many have criticised the film for its complex narrative and the lack of a clear conclusion. I am here to tell you, that the entire plot is a red herring, and that the film isn’t about solving a murder or peeling back a vast conspiracy about Hollywood. The lake in Under the Silver Lake, is a reference to the world-wide web; and the film is exploring the effects that the internet can have over our lives (especially he lives of twenty to thirty something male). Mitchell is making an observation of how disconnected people have become due to the internet, and as a result we have become paranoid and narcissistic.
Sam is so obsessed with a fake consumer life (he drives a car he cannot afford, attends parties full of rich young people that he personally doesn’t know) that his life has no actual purpose. Sam’s real purpose is not to find Sarah and uncover a vast conspiracy, but to find a meaningful relationship.
This is shown when he comes across a billboard of his ex-girlfriend (an inspiring model) posing for contact lens with the slogan, ”I can see clearly now,” a message telling him that the purpose of life is to be in a meaningful relationship.It is worth pointing out that the billboard is later replaced with an advert for fast food, showing us how Sam has replaced his actual purpose in life with an empty act of consumerism.
Sam is a representation of the millennial (although slightly heighten), still trying to cling onto his childhood. In one amusing moment, Sam wakes up to find a spider-man comic stuck to his hand. We can read this as a little in-joke, as Garfield played the superhero in two films, and that he is still associated with this character. However, there is a deeper meaning to this. Mitchell is pointing out the fact that many millennial cling onto their childhood, and refuse to let it go in order to transition into adulthood.
Later in the film, Sam tries to locate Sarah using a video game and the back of a cereal box, showing that he is incapable of letting go of the past and isn’t living in the present. Sam is so caught up in trying to finding meaning in past texts that he isn’t paying attention to his own reality, even when his car is being towed away or he is being threatened with eviction, he is too busy playing in a make-believe film noir.
In regards to the male gaze, Under the Silver Lake tries to dissect Hollywood’s obsession with the male gaze and how Sam has become this toxic individual obsessed with conspiracy theories and sex. I am not saying that Under the Silver Lake manages to get to the bottom of this, nor am I saying that it isn’t without fault or criticism.
In fact, the film is guilty for adopting many traits of the gaze that it tries to deconstruct. It is a film which is very much trying to criticise popular culture, but cannot escape the fact that it is part of this culture too, by being a film featuring young attractive people who are sold on their youthfulness and physical appearance.
The term male gaze is a term used to describe how the camera perceives women through the eyes of the male. There is an emphasis on the physical appearance of women depicting in films, with the camera lingering on certain body parts. We do see this throughout Under the Silver Lake, and our attention is drawn to it. However, this is deliberate, whereas traditionally the male gaze is often undetectable to the untrained eye. Our attention is drawn to how the character perceives women in a negative way. Women are objects of desire, they are only valued by their physical attractiveness.
As stated before, the clues are there to Sam, that women are more than just sex objects (the billboard and the coyote leading him to his ex) but he is so caught up with own narcissism that he refuses to regard women as actual human beings. In one scene, Sam and his friend use a drone to spy on a woman undressing. The woman is seen crying (although we don’t know why), and this is a turn off for Sam and his friend, because it destroys their view of women being only sexual objects.
If we take the view that the film is critique the power that the male gaze has on young men, and the corruption of Hollywood/celebrity culture we can begin to unpick the film. Firstly, it is apparent that the main character is not only obsessed with the opposite sex, but there is an indication that he fears them.
The sub-plot involving the mysterious dog killer that is terrorising the neighbourhood is a red herring of sorts. The dogs all seem to belong to young attractive women. And, the real killer is Sam. He may be actually killing dogs, but I read this as a warning to Sam of what may come if he continues to regard women in a negative way.
Dogs are representation of women in Sam’s eyes, this is seen when he dreams of Sarah eating her own dog, and when he sees he swimming naked in the pool, only to start barking when he tries to talk to her. If he continues to regard women as dogs, then he is more than likely to become an actual murderer. This is revealed when the homeless king (David Yow) questions Sam about the dog biscuits in his pocket, forcing Sam to come to terms with how he regards women. There is more to life than the male gaze.
Sam also encounters a strange woman (who is naked and wears an owl mask) who is an urban legend that kills young men, indicating that he is afraid of women and regards them as a threat. One of the victims of this so-called Bird woman, is Sam’s friend (Patrick Fischler) who is a representation of what Sam may become if he doesn’t learn the error of his way. Fischler’s character is a conspiracy nut, a loner who shuts himself away from the world and is single (he mentions maybe getting a family simply to leave his creepy masks of celebrities to someone).
Sam also encounters a warning of what he may become with the form of the musician (a bitter twisted man who sees no value in life) and in the form of the homeless king (a man who has no home, no family and no job). In conclusion, Sam needs to outgrow his childish ways, learn to respect women, accept some responsibility in life and grow the fuck up. If he doesn’t, he’ll become a bum, or something far more damaging to all of society.
Of course, this article is just my opinion and my analysis of this film. I am not declaring that I have undercovered the mystery of this film’s purpose, through hidden messages in song lyrics or have located a map on the back of a cereal box. Nor have I spent days scrolling through internet forums or watching videos on YouTube. I simply have reached this conclusion from my perspective as woman, and my own personal experiences.
There’s a lot to unpack with Under the Silver Lake, and this is why I regard it as an interesting film despite its flaws. Given time, I believe this film could go on to be taken far more seriously, and become part of the discussion of how we should address issues facing millennial men. Or maybe, I have dived too deeply under the lake?