'Under the Silver Lake'

Essential Viewing

The Shackles of Youth: Hipster Irony vs. Dirtbag Misogyny in Under the Silver Lake

Rowan Hand

The Shackles of Youth: Hipster Irony vs. Dirtbag Misogyny in Under the Silver Lake

There exists a special circle of hell where films of inexcusable vapidity are played on a constant loop.

Many of these films are frustratingly popular, slick and stylish vehicles of some sort of “mood” that nevertheless contain no real content or artistry save vague, cast-off hipsterisms and navel-gazing pseudo-intellectualism: sort of the cinematic equivalent of much of what passes for “theory" in the humanities.

Such films hoodwink the audience into thinking that something worthwhile exists under the surface, just…if only… I were clever enough to understand what it’s really saying. Right.

Bearing this concern in mind, one runs the risk of dismissing films that are difficult and yet ultimately rewarding. Films that defy convention and expectation; challenge us; and objectively add value to the world do of course exist [{1}]. With such a film, interpretation is difficult but rewarding. It may not even be pleasant to watch. We might have to read something to understand it (!), rewatch it multiple times and tear our hair out, but it will ultimately be worth it.

Dense, frustrating, nuanced, and making zero pretences toward likeability, David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is one of these films.

Hollywood, 2011

Under the Silver Lake, although it debuted at the 2018 Cannes festival, is technically a period piece set in 2011. Mitchell, a recent LA-transplant, began the script that year, using the page to document how his low-bullshit Midwestern sensibilities were being triggered by the darker elements of this apical era of LA’s hipster utopia.

During this period, hipsterism was not yet mainstream. It was largely relegated to a particular, cooler-than-thou stripe of youth culture. The classic noughties hipster was always a sort of cultural magpie, selecting and curating remixes of the past with an obvious infusion of ironic detachment. Note specifically that the true hipster would never refer to itself as such, being much more likely to use the term derisively against a fellow member of the species with (purportedly) inferior tattoos or taste in record labels. The best real definition of hipster was the old joke “a hipster is simply someone whose clothes fit.”

Perhaps one of the lasting legacies of the hipster is that these days, off-the-rack clothes do tend to fit. This begs the question of where the 2023 hipster can find meaning. In a world where irony has been completely obliterated by ultra-tribalism fuelled by the dark trifecta of social media, entitlement, and garbage scholarship, the hipster today finds itself adrift, a species without a cultural home [{2}].

This is analogous to the predicament of our protagonist, 33-year-old Sam, to all appearances an unwashed hipster, but in reality, a 1990s-era slacker with a wardrobe and mindset to match, living anachronistically in Hipsterland 2011. Sam, as a character, is a dark graft from an early Linklater film thrown into a world of ironic glamour and ironic nubile women whose ironic advances he foolishly takes as sincere.

At this point, it is incumbent upon Sam to create some sort of meaning for himself. We observe him fail spectacularly to do so.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

Like the protagonist of the film’s unofficial theme song, REM’s 'What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?', Sam finds himself out of place in a world that is moving along perfectly well without him.

Sam struggles, finding himself adrift in a youth culture that he hardly understands and that has no truck with his own history, so close in the past and yet so distant in the cultural currents. He hasn’t lived long enough for the 90s to become cool again–and, by the time it has (ca. 2023), 45-year-old Sam will be too old to reap any benefits from his first-hand knowledge.

He still finds himself hopelessly lost among the younger, prettier culture that surrounds him. As REM lyricist Michael Stipe suggests of What’s the Frequency, Kenneth’s protagonist, he is a man “desperately trying to figure [the younger generation] out,” yet getting nowhere [{3}]. And yet, as Sam finds his pervasive delusions to be true, he retreats into his 80s and 90s nostalgia, which serve only to date him further.

This forced detachment and frustration at being on the outside looking in only breed contempt, particularly when the cool kids ignore, disdain, or, perhaps worse, archly appropriate what you hold dearest [{4}]. If “irony is the shackles of youth,” as Stipe sings, casual misogyny may well be—as we shall see—the shackles of the excluded.

Everything is For Sale and Nothing is Unique

If human beings are meaning-creation machines, this predilection must be tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism: “seeing how the world really works” could bespeak a revelation, but more likely it indicates a chimeric fiction that seems clever on the surface but is little more than varnished manic lunacy [{5}]. Yet among the curious features of Under the Silver Lake is that Sam’s freakouts and unhinged paranoia turn out to be correct.

In short, the plot follows Sam as he exists in a Silver Lake, LA’s erstwhile hipster capital, as it contends with mysterious pet murders perpetrated by a presence known only as “The Dog Killer.” Sam meets his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough [{6}]) when he gives dog biscuits to her Bichon Frise. The two end up hanging out, smoking weed and watching films, yet they part ways before hooking up. This leaves Sam with a case of blue balls that lasts the rest of the film. More poignantly, the next day Sarah disappears with minimal trace, and the rest of the film describes Sam’s increasingly frustrated, increasingly unhinged attempts to discover the secret of this missing woman.

As the plot progresses, Sam uncovers an interlocking set of plots and conspiracies, culminating in the realisation that everything that we once thought to be clever and interesting was actually manufactured and part of a larger conspiracy to float wealth, privilege, power, and, yes, even nubile women to a shadowy cabal of powerful men even older than he.

Everything that we (Sam) thought was cool was actually bullshit, a product of the greater wheels of commerce and power, and by pinning our hopes, dreams, and identities on such cultural artefacts (Nirvana, the Pixies, Super Mario Bros., etc.), we become nothing but cogs in the machine. This is a hard comedown for those of us who considered ourselves dyed-in-the-wool cultural dissidents.

As tends to be the case with noir films, the obtuse machinations of the plot at once drive Under the Silver Lake yet are largely irrelevant to its message. Notably, rather than allowing the viewer to solve any of these surface mysteries, Mitchell essentially grants their truth by fiat: yes, all of Sam’s absurd fantasies are legitimate [{7}]. On one hand, this robs the audience the pleasure of actually figuring out many of the film’s mysteries by themselves; on the other, it indicates that an entirely different theme is at play.

Toxic Masculinity: Hipster Edition

A point to consider: early in the film, Sam is sprayed by a skunk and women consistently comment on his terrible smell. The man literally stinks, and this fact is not lost on his would-be conquests.

Nearly every male character in the film [[8]] from Sam to Bar Buddy (Topher Grace) to Allen (Jimmi Simpson) to the aptly-named “Giant Hipster with Giant Beard” (aka the Hipster Pirate, Darrel Cherney), to, of course, the Final Man (Don McManus) and Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) are at least ten years older than the women they are chasing or, arguably, grooming.

The film strides a curious line between Sam’s conscious or unconscious attempts to objectify these hipster women (note how the Male Gaze is called out explicitly in the Purgatory scene) and the women’s sincere attempts to kick back: Balloon Girl’s (Grace van Patten) overt come-ons, Troy’s (Zosia Mamet) literal kick in the balls, Sarah’s barely-disguised revulsion at the fact that Sam actually tracked her down.

Sam routinely fails at his attempts to bed [[9]] hipster women. His failure to consummate his relationship with Sarah drives the plot, while Balloon Girl’s classy proposition (“We should fuck!”) culminates with Sam vomiting into the nearest toilet. Tellingly, the only one of these women whom Sam so much as gets close to is the one he hires as an escort (India Menuez).

Given that it is Sam’s movie, however, the hipster women’s rebuffs make little difference. He is not going to be dissuaded in his attempts to fetishise younger women. He will continue to spend time with toxic friends like Allen (“Crazy makes for good sex. Remember that.”) and Bar Buddy, who, in the film’s most blunt metaphor, uses a drone to spy on a woman undressing, only for he and Sam to witness her inexplicably burst into tears during their perv session.

Women Sam doesn’t objectify include Actress (the wonderful Riki Lindhome), Sam’s age-appropriate fuck buddy, and Topless Bird Woman (Wendy Vanden Heuvel), the ostensible stand-in for Sam’s own mother. As Sam drifts further into insolvency, paranoia, and mayhem, these two women provide a stability otherwise denied by the women in the film: in the former case acting as a sounding board for his more insane theories (ultimately not putting up with them) and in the latter a curious Oedipal fixation.

On that note, during the whole of the film, Sam gets supportive calls from his mother. She consistently pushes him toward the film 7th Heaven (one of three films (!) for which the first Oscar for Best Actress was given to actress Janet Gaynor), about a young man, Chico, who asks a young blonde woman to marry him only to be rebuffed, but then, via a tortuous path, finds Diane, a prostitute who loves him despite his obvious flaws.

This feeds back into the main narrative, perhaps, in the fact that each of the hipster women he pursues is ultimately revealed to work for the Shooting Stars escort service. On one hand, this association suggests the women's ironic detachment from sex (to wit: it’s just about money, power, and prestige), yet it further suggests that these women use said detachment to numb themselves from the fact that they are playing into a powerful system that is, in fact, exploiting them. Sam might be trying it on in his ineffectual, dirtbag way, but we can see from far away that these women are working within a larger system controlled by forces—and older men—whose power and influence he can barely grasp and will surely never achieve.

Notably, Sam watches his mother’s gifted copy of 7th Heaven on VHS as he discovers the map that unlocks the film’s conspiracy and sends him on a crash course with the Final Man. As the only female figure consistently willing to engage with him through the entirety of the film, note that Sam’s mother, always separated by a phone line, remains blissfully unaware of his stench.


Perhaps Sam’s most disturbing aspect is his scopophilia, a Freudian term described by Laura Mulvey as “the surreptitious observation of an unknowing an unwilling victim,” e.g. the lingerie model caught on camera by Bar Buddy’s drone. Put another way, Sam has a creepy stare from which few if any females are exempt.

As the astute viewer will notice, nearly every woman in the film, except, of course, Sam’s mother, whom he never literally stares at (perhaps only given that we never actually see her), is subject to Sam’s scopophilia.

Sam’s uncomfortable gaze is the centrepiece of the movie, creeping the fuck out of women right and left, leaving them disturbed by his intentions even when potentially simply innocent or curious.

With this in mind, it seems no mistake that Mitchell would cast the epically likeable Andrew Garfield in such a role. Mitchell has gone out of his way to paint Sam as the Worst Person Ever [[10]]: Sam’s bad behaviour is not confined to creeping out women: he punches children; doesn’t pay his rent; lies compulsively; spies on one woman immediately after sex with another; drives a “cockmobile;” smells like a skunk; and countless other things. If the protagonist of a noir film is meant to be a bit of a slob, Mitchell has consciously turned the dial up to 11 here. Nevertheless, Garfield’s eager-puppy vibe saves the day when an actor on a different frequency would thoroughly turn off or disturb the audience within moments.

In short, Under the Silver Lake asks us to check ourselves, addressing when one’s own gaze becomes uncomfortable or disturbing for the recipient. This concept makes one, particularly as a man, uncomfortable: at what point does a respectful gaze, even one of appreciation or awe, cross the line [[11]]? Certainly, staring can be creepy. Large-scale city-funded art in Bristol and ubiquitous London Tube signage has demonized staring as a form of sexual harassment. There is a certain visceral truth to this, recalling Justice Potter Stewart’s famously arbitrary “I know it when I see it” definition of “obscenity” [[12]].

All we have left is learning by example, frustratingly not even a positive example. In a creeptastic reductio ad absurdum, we achieve a clearer perspective on what to do insofar as Sam teaches us what NOT to do.


All this, perhaps, is what makes Under the Silver Lake an important film in our age where “objectivity” belongs only to those with good social media game and we are double-bound by the fact that rules, codes, and guidelines for social interaction are themselves an oppressive force of [insert whatever today’s punching bag happens to be].

As time marches on and generational divides get only more ridiculous, Under the Silver Lake serves as a cautionary tale. What we note of Sam’s distasteful behaviour must be present in ourselves, and Mitchell forces one to take a close look in the mirror.

Mulvey states:

“As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.”

Yet Mitchell’s mirror is a funhouse-mirror version of Mulvey’s. Sam is hardly omnipotent; he lacks any sort of notable power or control of events. He is the ür-loser, the distilled essence of the worst in all men, the dirtbag whose locus of control is limited to keeping dog biscuits in his pocket in order to make friends with young women’s pets [[13]].

Sam’s “erotic looks,” just like his friends’ casual misogyny, have no active power except to put women, and the rest of us, off. Reflected against the greater theme that the wealthy and powerful men are gleefully coercing young women into joining meretricious subterranean death-cult harems, this only highlight Sam’s impotence. It is perhaps fitting that, in the film’s final moments, he rushes into the arms of his mother-surrogate, the Topless Bird Woman.

It also provides a cautionary tale to the rest of us: don’t be like Sam.


[1] For example, the oeuvre of David Lynch. Contrast with: the work of anyone who self-describes as “Lynchian.”

[2] Upon realising its own irrelevance, the hipster often swims to Margate (formerly Stoke Newington) to spawn. To its credit, unlike its successors, the hipster at least appears still to be having sex.

[3] Also ironic is the fact that Stipe wrote this song about someone trying to understand Gen X-ers; intergenerational detachment would appear to be a perennial issue.

[4] The difference between Sam and the younger generation would seem to be that their ironic detachment precludes them from caring about anything as much as Sam cares for, say, Nirvana.

[5] Cf. Robert Anton Wilson and the concept of “Chapel Perilous.”

[6] Interestingly—but unrelatedly—the granddaughter of one Elvis Aaron Presley.

[7] For an excellent exposition of this feature of Under the Silver Lake, see Ethan Warren’s article on Bright Wall, Dark Room: []

[8] More precisely, every male character who actually expresses interest in women.

[9] Ed. note: “Gross - can you phrase differently or is this integral?” Cringe factor intentional:“woo” or “seduce" just doesn’t capture the vibe, you know?

[10] Of course, the film does turn many people off, but arguably not for Garfield’s performance itself.

[11] Let’s be honest: "he should just know” is hardly a useful gauge here.

[12] To Stewart’s credit, this was used to explain why something (Louis Malle’s Les Amants, in fact) was not pornographic.

[13] In a related aside, the first-blush argument that Sam himself is the Dog Killer seems trite and obvious at this point. To assume this gives the film less credit than it deserves. If for no other reason, witness the proliferation of coyote references as the film progresses: these are the dogs that get the most obvious screen time. Recall that in Native American mythology, is the trickster In other words, like all the other stated conspiracies, the Dog Killer is not the full story; something else is afoot, and our real takeaway may need to be inferred.


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