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SILVER CITY (R) (2004)

Universal Pictures

Official Site

Director: John Sayles

Producer: Maggie Renzi

Written by: John Sayles

Cast: Maria Bello, Thora Birch, David Clennon, Chris Coooper, Alma Delfina, Richard Dreyfuss, Miguel Ferrer, James Gammon, Daryl Hannah, Danny Huston, Kris Kristofferson, Sal Lopez, Michael Murphy, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Luis Saguar, Ralph Waite, Billy Zane


I used to be a devotee, but I’ve missed the last couple of John Sayles movies, having read enough about them to suggest a falling-off of his craft that would probably dispirit me. And I am so fucking sick and tired of everything Bush that this roman à clef movie was not the one I would’ve chosen for my return to Sayles’ work, but the luck of the draw brought me to Silver City. It’s a dismal little place, though the necessary ingredients are there to have made it a shining city on a hill.

Folks still rush to work on a Sayles show—hence the presence of Academy Award-winning DP Haskell Wexler, and dig that fabulous cast list—plus some of the actors have made no secret of their desires to vote with their art against the current administration. There’s the sexy crooning of the great Margo Timmins behind several scenes plus Steve Earle’s tear-’em-a-new-one, “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best That We Can Do)” at the end.

But Sayles doesn’t get it done.

Dickie Pilager (Cooper), conservative son of a conservative Colorado senator (Murphy) and not the sharpest knife in the drawer, is filming a fishing commercial for his gubernatorial campaign when he lands a corpse. His kingmaking campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Dreyfuss), engages a detective agency to find out whether one of Dickie’s enemies planted the body. The operative assigned to the case—Danny O’Brien (the hopelessly outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned Danny Huston, in a performance that’s just… well, bless his heart, bad), a former investigative journalist whose big story blew up into a lawsuit that bankrupted the paper he used to work for.

Led by one clue—a tattoo on the back of the dead man’s hand—O’Brien uncovers the usual mass of sordid, monied corruption and land-rape (ideas which probably grew from the seed of an actual failed and shady Fort Carson, Colorado construction project). The story behind the story of the waterlogged corpse is ultimately believable because it happens all the time. But the only other thing that rings true in Silver City is the small, mostly off-screen role of the Juan Doe, just another undocumented worker in the mostly unseen army of trabajadores.

Okay let me qualify that: Cooper’s W impersonation is dead-on and is not played for laughs. It’s so good it hurts.

Otherwise, Silver City is an example of how having passion for something doesn’t guarantee good work will result. Sayles did his homework, so the details are right. Hapless Dickie was apparently a bit of a drinker and partier before he saw the light (or felt the heat). Later, he’s bailed out of a failed business by some of his daddy’s rich campaign contributors. Chuck Raven, an obvious Karl Rove, bollixed a Young Conservatives election by challenging the credentials of convention delegates and later sandbagged a lifelong career by starting a whispering campaign against Ralph Waite’s character.

The poster features Cooper, but it’s really not about Dickie Pilager. He just shambles on and off, like a piece of furniture being positioned and repositioned by stagehands. And anyway, for my money, the best and most apt exposè of candidate Bush is still the bedsheet-wearing faux populist Homer Stokes ("I'm for the little man!") in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Silver City might have done better to follow the Pilager campaign and the Rove character. Now there was an opportunity to show us something really interesting—the man behind the curtain—and to make a better job of it than, say, the flawed documentary Bush’s Brain.

Instead, we get a liberal’s screed against big business taking the place of big government. For the right, we have big money, personified here by Wes Benteen (Kristofferson), who only speaks in “big ideas,” ideological pronouncements about people, products, etc. For the left, we have the now-ruined Ralph Waite character of the editorializing old mine tour guide. Someone’s got to do the op-ed, I guess, but it seems unusually clumsily done for Sayles, who plays his audience for dimwits like Dickie Pilager. Silver City explains too much, with too many expositors, like the civics lesson “The West Wing” became after Aaron Sorkin stopped writing it.

This movie made me fidgety. People are exceptionally forthcoming when O’Brien asks his questions. Private investigation should only be this easy. Apparently no one is Silver City has heard of “Just the facts, ma’am.” There are also some rather glib lines that I just don’t know how people got out of their mouths; that was difficult to watch. Then there are small but wince-worthy moments: the Dickens-style practice of naming characters like the Pilagers for traits; the appearance of Roth in the uniform of every good radical/journalist—a field jacket; the pierced flesh and bleach-blasted hair of Roth’s stereotyped lefty associates; barrels of chromosome-scrambling crap labeled with actual skull & crossbones.

I think the model for this movie was Lone Star, and Sayles wanted to show the different communities that occupy the same geographical space, if not the same headspace. We even get the same periodic lonely guitar chords twanging in the background. It’s interesting that Sayles has now demonstrated, via Lone Star and Silver City, that he’s much more comfortable talking about race—the elephant in our national living room and a topic that few other filmmakers have handled well—than he is talking about money and power. Like a lot of leftists, when it comes to money, lots and lots of money, his sublety deserts him, and I'm sorry to say that we wind up watching John Sayles lay it on with a trowel.

—Roxanne Bogucka

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