How do you tell a modern cult story? In a world where cults either hide in plain sight or quickly become the subject of documentaries, telling a believable cult story now involves a balancing act of realism and fantasy. No film has mastered this alchemy more than Under the Silver Lake, the 2018 A24 indie thriller that flew under the radar but is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Under the Silver Lake is best described as a neo-noir. In fact, it takes most of its inspiration from Old Hollywood, and not just in its mystery and Los Angeles setting. It stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, a hapless man with a love of conspiracy theories and a fascination with his new neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough). She invites him over and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire... and then she disappears.
It seems like overnight, Sarah and her roommates just vanished. This becomes the catalyst for Sam to dive into an adventure involving subliminal messages, a serial dog murderer, underground concert venues, self-published comics, and an old issue of Nintendo Power.
The beauty of Under the Silver Lake is in the juxtaposition of its two major influences — the decadence of Hollywood, be it in its fame, its depravity, or its beauty, and the creeping paranoia that is even more prevalent in today's culture. Just as Old Hollywood noirs would expose the seedy yet indulgent underbellies of cities while uncovering corruption and cracking a case, Sam finds his paranoia all too confirmed.
The cult aspect of this movie is only introduced toward the very end, but in many ways it addresses cult-like attitudes toward society as a whole, showing how to find hidden patterns and piece together unrelated things in the hopes of discovering something totally unknown.
Sam doesn't just discover a cult. He's part of one himself: a cult influenced not by a charismatic leader but by the faith in some secret message hidden amongst nondescript things. The closest parallel to Sam's beliefs is actually the QAnon movement, which many are calling a "conspiracy cult" in itself.
Be warned, though — Under the Silver Lake is just as scatterbrained in its reasoning as its protagonist, and you may find yourself confused by the constant symbolism and motifs that ripple throughout. However, looking at this choice as deliberate exposes a whole new element of realism to this movie. Of course it's confusing; the conspiracy Sam is exposing is hidden all over, and so too is the style and plot.
If you're looking for a trippy conspiracy cult thriller that will have you reaching for the tin foil by the end of its 139 minutes, look no further than Under the Silver Lake: this is the movie for you.
Under the Silver Lake is now streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.