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Review: Silver City

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As a John Sayles fan, it pains me to have to tell all of you that his latest film, Silver City, just isn’t that good. Compared to typical Hollywood fare, it’s happily mediocre, but ranked against the best of Sayles’ canon (Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Men with Guns), Silver City falls well short.

It’s pretty easy to determine where the movie screws up, and that’s with the storyline involving Colorado gubernatorial candidate “Dickie” Pilager (Chris Cooper). Pilager is the dimwitted scion of an influential family who spent a good deal of his youth screwing around before getting groomed for a run at the governor’s mansion (sound like anyone we know?) Pilager is almost more George W. Bush than Bush himself, though without even the latter’s ability to work a crowd. Richard Dreyfuss plays Chuck Raven, the Karl Rove knock-off, who is trying to ferret out the person(s) responsible for the inopportune appearance of a corpse at a Pilager photo-op. To this end, he hires Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a disgraced ex-reporter turned investigator who sets out to discover the body’s identity and how it came to end up at the end of Pilager’s fishing line.

Along the way, O’Brien runs into the usual assortment of idiosyncratic Sayles characters (Daryl Hannah stands out as Maddy, Pilager’s black sheep stoner sister, while Miguel Ferrer puts in a feisty appearance as a far right-wing talk show host). As he tracks down the various clues, O’Brien uncovers the financial ties between the Pilager clan and Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), CEO of a giant multinational. He’s also compelled to look into a housing development with suspicious ties to Benteen and illegal migrant labor practices. The murder mystery angle plays out with the governor’s campaign as a backdrop, and Dickie himself pops up every so often to cut loose with a few choice malapropisms.

And there’s the problem. Taken solely as a story about greed and hapless immigrants exploited by heartless capitalists, Silver City would’ve played more to Sayles’ strengths: sympathy for the working man, deeply personal storylines, and the exploitation of both mankind and nature. But that’s not his agenda, as Sayles is obviously on a mission to work his “Bush is a moron” stance into the film as well, and this provides the film with its weakest moments.

For starters, it’s a hard thing indeed to parody someone like Bush, whose every speaking appearance offers the potential for unintentional hilarity. Several of Pilager’s lines are lifted verbatim from the President’s own appearances, making the character even less of a caricature and more a blatant copy with the serial numbers barely filed off. Moreover, the history between Ferrer’s character and Raven is taken directly from Karl Rove’s college Republican shenanigans. It is to Sayles’ credit that he doesn’t focus too much on Pilager, but the ham-handed fashion in which the entire political campaign storyline is presented (names like “Pilager and “Raven” should give you a clue as to the level of subtlety involved) taints everything else in the film. The inclusion of the many redundant Pilager gaffes also means the principal actors have to present the larger plot in an annoyingly hurried fashion, and the didactic tone of the Pilager scenes distracts from the more thoughtful elements and the largely competent acting performances.

Although someone needs to make a sequel to The Phantom for Billy Zane before he ends up as this generation’s Peter Lorre.

I still consider Sayles a fine filmmaker, even if his directing style can charitably be described as “minimalist.” With Silver City, he’s made the unfortunate mistake of casting aside the storyteller’s role in favor of the polemicist’s. Sayles obviously has strong feelings about the Bush Administration, but unlike the other topics he explores in Silver City (the plight of migrant laborers, corporate media monopolies, land management), he’s unable to maintain an artistic aloofness, which just makes the Pilager scenes that much more shrill. The 2004 election will be over soon, for better or worse, and then hopefully John Sayles can go back to crafting thoughtful movies about multifaceted characters and can leave the political diatribes to someone else.

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About Pete Vonder Haar

  • Eric Olsen

    Pete, very fine review and I suspect you get to the heart of the matter: some people nad things are too over the top already to easily parody, and when you add polemics to the mix it can fall apart pretty easily.

    Thanks and welcome!

  • Nice review! John Sayles hosted a free screening of this at a local drive-in, but I was unable to make it. I’m still sort of interested in it.