A young man meets up with his neighbor, Sarah. They spend the afternoon together and agree to see each other again the next day. When Sam shows up at Sarah’s apartment, he finds it empty and abandoned, with few clues to explain her abrupt disappearance. So starts his quest to find her in Under the Silver Lake, a movie-puzzler from David Robert Mitchell, the auteur best known for his 2014 chiller, It Follows.
And a puzzler Under the Silver Lake is. Partly inspired by eighties and nineties LucasFilm adventure games (Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island are stated examples), it’s a movie you can watch from start to finish and feel however you want to about it, but which requires multiple viewings to solve all its puzzles. Many plot points seem unfinished at first glance but pay close attention, and hints will lead you through a larger story. Who the dog killer is — essentially the backdrop for Under the Silver Lake — is an easy one to start with, while symbols, events, and seemingly secondary characters are more than meet the eye. Many movies have diffuse plots, but Under the Silver Lake leaves more to pragmatic problem-solving than subjective interpretation.
On paper, there are similarities between It Follows and Under the Silver Lake, as many of the same ingredients were used for baking both movies. Each is hypnotically shot and come accompanied by Disasterpiece soundtracks while featuring a set of appropriately understated performances from the actors. Follow a checklist, and the movies have a wide overlap on the Venn diagram. Compare the two’s execution, though, and you get two very different creatures.
The soundtrack illustrates it well. While It Follows featured Disasterpiece’s signature 8-bit console chipsound, Under the Silver Lake has the stylings of something not miles away from Bernard Hermann. Same artist; two great soundtracks; vastly different styles.
Mitchell shows himself as a director with equally well-rounded talents. The bleak palette of It Follows has been replaced by thematic blues and is paced with an eerie, dreamlike flow that echoes Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In fact, Sam’s journey through the underbelly of L.A. can in many ways be compared to that movie, down to being a source of polarizing opinions. Some consider Under the Silver Lake dull and obtuse, while others appreciate its mesmerizing aesthetics and peripheral puzzles. I sit with the latter group, and I also believe you can enjoy the movie for what it is on the surface: an eerie, well-executed thriller. Watching the film multiple times is rewarding, mind you, and figuring out the puzzles is satisfying.
Either way, Under the Silver Lake is worth checking out if only to have an opinion about it. It’s currently streaming for free on Prime Video.
Bonus fact! Sam’s ringtone is the theme from the Commodore 64 game, The Last Ninja. Mitchell once again shows his appreciation for the classics. Download the MP3, written and performed by the late Ben Daglish.