Heroism in ‘Under the Silver Lake’: “This MEANS Something” vs. “THIS Means Something?!”

I can’t believe I have to do this on a post about a movie, but let this be a warning that I’m going to spoil a lot of this movie. Even though a movie like this is kind of incapable of being spoiled, since explaining the plot points in text makes almost as little sense as they do in the final film, but anyway. You’ve been warned. 

Since first watching “Under the Silver Lake,” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it for what feels like years, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for nearly as long. I’m not going to conquer the whole thing today — I couldn’t, and I doubt anyone could — but I will be focusing on some of the more challenging points the film presents, particularly around its central character, a person I carefully do not refer to as a “hero.”

I’ve struggled with heroic motivation in my own mystery writing. In all my writing, actually, but mysteries tend to come with an added bit of oddity around the detective’s reasons for solving the case. In essence: why is this person doing this? Why do they care? 

A lot of mystery stories get around this by simply making it the detective’s job. He or she is literally a detective for hire, and they are hired to solve the case. Open and shut. Often times, during the course of the case, things will get “personal,” but it seems the most relatable motive remains money. 

Other mystery stories start with things being personal, with a family member or close friend being harmed in some way. Oddly enough, the reason for the harm will also come down to money, inverting the motive to the antagonist. 

Sam, the protagonist of “Under the Silver Lake,” does not have either, really. It’s oddly personal, but those personal motivations are not presented openly. Some might call it obtuse, and they’d be correct, too. At the beginning of the movie, Sam has very little motivation to do much of anything beyond ogling girls and pleasuring himself afterwords. When the central mystery is presented — what happened to Sarah — it’s almost like the reason he wants to figure it out is because he was going to score with her and now doesn’t get to. 

That’s pretty shallow. 

That’s also by design. It’s not a flaw. It’s a commentary. 

Here’s where I — like the movie — try to take a big swing. Your determination of that swing’s success depends entirely upon your personal beliefs, but for now, I don’t care. 

The big swing is this: I think the underlying theme of “Under the Silver Lake” is a commentary on white male privilege, the abuses of those powers, and the warped sense of entitlement that comes with that position. It centralizes a straight white man who can operate in this world because of what he is, and yet still desires more. He feels entitled and disillusioned, not realizing how much of this he has done to himself by placing so much of his personal worth into valuing movies, music, celebrities and other such pop culture artifacts. 

“UTSL” presents much of this paradox in the way Sam can so easily come across information, infiltrate parties and generally get by. He isn’t paying his rent or car payments, coming close to eviction and homelessness. He smells. He wears ratty clothes. And yet, he strolls into most of these “exclusive” parties with little to no resistance. At one point, when he follows the coyote and finds another party, he is not only wearing his pajamas, but gets complimented on it. The entire world is designed for him. 

The entire world may, in fact, be designed BY him, too. I cannot exactly prove it, but there are several instances where Sam will mention something — often in a lie — only to see that thing manifest in the next scene or two. One example comes early when he tells his F-buddy that the bad smell in his apartment is the result of nearby skunks. To this point, we haven’t seen any skunks, and we seem to understand — as the movie confirms for us — that Sam is the one who smells bad. Yet, a few scenes later, he sees an actual skunk. I’m not saying that skunks don’t exist in Silver Lake, or that they couldn’t exist prior to the movie’s start. But if we follow the generally-held cinematic logic that the first time something is mentioned is that thing’s inception, then here, Sam has initiated the creation of a skunk by lying about it. 

Same with the death of Millicent Sevence. She is shot in the reservoir, through the chest, and falls back in the same pose seen on Sam’s favorite old issue of “Playboy.” She dies in a way that can only benefit him, as if the movie is acknowledging its existence in this real world system of patriarchy while simultaneously showing how destructive that is in its own in-movie world to its in-movie female characters. 

Dialing back, the apt question to ask here is, “Why? Why is the movie doing this?” While I cannot be 100% certain, I believe that placing the film through a critical-of-white-men position helps to explain much of Sam’s decisions. He has obviously gone through a recent and traumatic breakup, which may have lead him to kill local dogs. He cannot understand why he isn’t special, why he isn’t leading “a better life.” In the scene with the drone, he laments as much to his friend played by Topher Grace, saying: 

“You ever feel like you f—d up somewhere a long time ago and you’re living the wrong life? Like a bad version of the life you’re supposed to have? …I used to think that I was gonna be someone that, like, people cared about? Maybe do something important.”

Part of what the movie is about is his realization that he is not going to be important, but that the reason has less to do with the world conspiring against him. It doesn’t CARE about him at all. His inability to process this realization ties to his white-male entitlement. He’s “supposed to be” a king. Women are “supposed to” fall in love with him. The world is constantly telling him this, and yet it’s not happening in precisely the way he wants. It happens in empty ways, with entry to parties and the ability to watch old TV. 

This motivation is, to say it bluntly, cynical and not heroic. Sam is likely trying to find Sarah for his own selfish purposes, which have been supported by years of media manipulation telling him he should feel this way. If he wants to save her, it is only because he has been told to save her, since he clearly only cares about himself and little else. 

This cynicism follows through to the greater mystery — the mystery within the mystery — centering around the strange act of billionaire men encasing themselves in tombs for ascension to “something exclusive,” to have their souls brought from Earth and sent to some kind of Heaven. Again, those words: these (presumably) white (definitely) straight men feel such a great sense of entitlement that they are faking their deaths, entrapping three women with them, and spending millions of dollars just to do something that may not even work, all for the chance at something “better.” The emptiness of this exercise, despite all its effort and the conspiracy surrounding it, resonates against Sam’s own burgeoning nihilism; their world is meaningless, their values are shallow, and their motives are suspect. 

That’s where my title comes in, a play on the movie’s goals and the negative reaction some might have to the film. It’s a mystery about a mystery, which ultimately wants to say solving the mystery is a waste of time. Many of the clues add up, but the outcome is worth less thant he sum of its parts. Understandably, that may not sit well with many people. Most people, I’d guess. But for me, for whatever reason (and I may get into that at another time), it hit me just right. I appreciated the criticism, playing against my own sense of white guilt. 

It’s here where I get curious at whether I’ve reached too far, or shown too much of my hand. As a straight white man myself, I wonder how I would have processed the same movie written and directed by someone not matching my particular description. What if a woman had made this movie? Or a Black person, a gay person? And what does it say about my own personal biases that I “relate” (I’m afraid to use that word, but please take it in its best meaning) to this movie?

Beneath the entire film is a sense of true frustration, not only in Sam and the other characters, but in the way the movie wants its audience to feel. The mystery is somehow driving the story, yet the movie is a character piece. Scenes serve to explore, develop and challenge Sam first, then the mystery second. This may seem like a stretch (and what doesn’t at this point? Trying to pin this movie down is like trying to hold water), but I believe this explains some of the stranger (and to some, more frustrating) elements of the story: the killing of The Songwriter, and the non-resolution of the Owl Woman. I’ll try to get into what they mean in another post, but for now, I believe these scenes serve to push Sam more than they do the overall story by challenging his paranoia and self-worth (the Songwriter) and his messed up feelings about women (the Owl). 

That’s OK. For me anyway. For others, these serve as Exhibits A and B in their case against the movie working at all. I believe such people require movies — particularly mysteries — to tie up everything and explain them. 

I guess I don’t. I only require my mysteries to be mysterious. And their “heroes” must be compelling. I see that in this film. Maybe it’s coded, maybe it’s a little gross, but I see it.

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