Minor spoilers for Burning and Under the Silver Lake to follow...
Buried on VOD in the States at A24’s behest, likely due to a mixed and fairly thorny critical reception that would sully their record, David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake is an odd beast, a long and labyrinthine homage to Hitchcock, Lynch and LA noir, all told from the perspective of a scuzzy misogynist played by Andrew Garfield. Its confrontation of male rage and entitlement embedded in a modern day gumshoe noir rather surprisingly aligns it with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.
Both films tackle the kind of male rage associated with ‘Red Pill’ types, men whose brains have rotted from a belief that there is some kind of conspiracy being led by women against them, thrown in with some nonsense beliefs about alpha and beta males. The protagonists of Burning and Under The Silver Lake probably would fit into the latter category, as hapless pushovers who mostly just go along with things.
Burning follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a budding graduate writer with seemingly no structure to his life now that he’s no longer in college nor the military. He soon comes across Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo, incredible in her feature debut), a girl from his childhood who soon becomes a figure of obsession for Jong-su after she sleeps with him. Hae-mi introduces Lee to the ideas of ‘little hunger’ and ‘great hunger’, the former being the more material kind of hunger, and the latter being a hunger for meaning. Once she leaves for Africa, Jong-su becomes even more lost, habitually masturbating in her vacant bedroom. She eventually returns with Ben (Steven Yeun, as handsome as ever) - a rich, worldly, charming man without a care in the world, so much so that he claims every now and then burning down greenhouses for fun. After that, Hae-mi disappears without a trace and Jong-su suspects “greenhouse” to mean something else more sinister (murder).
In Under The Silver Lake, Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a more verbose, overtly unpleasant character than Jongsu - kicking the crap out of kids who keyed his car, raving about how much he hates the homeless, and other delights as the film goes on. Mitchell goes so far as to make Sam literally stink, doused in skunk spray for the majority of the film’s running time. He also has the ‘great hunger’ that eats away at Jong-su but he’s already been consumed by it, obsessing over hidden codes from the very beginning, as if decoding the right thing will solve all of his problems.
Like Jong-su, Sam runs into a woman named Sarah (Riley Keough), who promptly disappears after a brief flirtation. Some seemingly random, disconnected clues including a symbol left in her barren house and hidden messages in song lyrics lead him into the bizarre, seedy underbelly of LA in a desperate search for her whereabouts, and why she left. The disappearance of each of these women throws them into turmoil, their ‘great hunger’ consuming them as they struggle to glean meaning out of this disruption. The women's agency is never considered - the idea that they could have just been ghosted is out of the question.
It’s tempting to take Burning’s subjective POV literally and believe what Jong-su is seeing to be true - Ben certainly leaves a lot of reason to believe he’s responsible for Hae-mi’s disappearance - but it never truly confirms Jong-su’s suspicions. If the film were observed from another point of view, we could see Hae-mi ghosting him as revenge for his bullying her in their youth. But it’s much easier for him to believe that Ben is a murderer rather than confront his own flaws. Jong-su’s misogyny shows itself in his belittling of Hae-mi, while Sam’s bleeds into almost every frame of the film; we see his casual objectification of every woman he meets through his subjective point of view. It immediately dismantles any notion of Sam being some underdog noir hero at every opportunity; one of his more disturbing quirks is that every now and then he envisions women as dogs barking at him.
Where Burning lets its mystery claw at the mind of Jong-su until he finally snaps without providing an answer, Under The Silver Lake concludes a little more definitively, the conspiracy revealed, but nothing truly changed. It has been argued that Mitchell’s conclusion validates Sam, proving him right about a conspiracy taking place beneath Los Angeles. But this revelation is meaningless; Sam hasn’t affected any real change and so his part in the story is without worth. The resolution of this conspiracy isn’t the key moment of the final act, it comes much earlier, in a scene in which he runs into his ex-girlfriend.
This interaction solves the real mystery of the film - not any of the many clues, hidden messages and pop culture references that Mitchell has littered throughout, but the answer to why he’s in this stasis (of course, there’s a whole subreddit dedicated to fully decoding the movie via these red herrings, missing the point entirely). It all comes down to this scene; why he obsessively pursues this mystery, in the hope of proving something to himself, that he’s worth loving, that he’s heroic in some way, not a guy worth breaking up with - which he absolutely is. Both Sam and Jong-su’s ‘great hunger’ manifests itself as an idea that they were somehow cheated out of the happiness that they are owed.
In Burning’s conclusion Jong-su finally snaps and kills Ben in a fit of vengeful rage without ever getting a confession, leaving his question unanswered. Sam gets to solve his mystery, but there’s no real catharsis - he still loses his flat, he’s still in the same place, his ex is doing great and he’s only just washed the smell of skunk spray out of his clothes. Neither realise that there might be nothing to solve, that this search for answers is only delaying any kind of enlightenment or self-actualisation. It works as a lampooning of the endless conspiracy theorising of angry boys online, all while sympathising with the need for meaning, and the endless and pointless chase for an answer that ultimately means nothing.
Under The Silver Lake and Burning both try and confront this toxic headspace, centering on men who have been promised the world and instead found rejection. That rejection and bitterness at not getting the life they feel they deserve quickly becomes an impulse towards destruction, as they try to assert whatever control they can over the world, with dire, violent consequences.