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Silver City (John Sayles, 2004)


   Silver City, the latest thinly veiled political ramble from John Sayles, gets off to a wobbly start with the introduction of Dickie Pillager (Chris Cooper in what might be a career-worst performance), a dunderheaded manure peddler, turned gubernatorial candidate, and a thinly veiled stand-in for George W. Bush. It doesnít take long to recognize that this is one of those John Sayles movies, where everyone's either a mouthpiece for the director or a villain, and the labyrinth plot is only an excuse to introduce more mouthpieces. Even though itís set the week before the election of the new Governor of Colorado, thereís scarcely a mention of Pillagerís opponent. Obviously Sayles is so convinced that he's doing right that he's scarcely concerned with doing it well. The direction is consistently lazy, recalling filmed TV dramas in its lack of visual style and its simple-minded editing scheme. Though thatís nothing new from Sayles, itís still shocking to see a movie that looks this bland, despite the fact that Haskell Wexler shot it. The disappointing thing about Silver City, though, is that it almost threatens to work from time to time as a sunny, funny noir, in the style of The Long Goodbye. That's mostly thanks to Danny Huston's performance, which is admittedly nowhere near as inspired as Elliot Gould's in the Altman film, but still effective thanks to the actorís inescapably false smile. Less a private investigator than a hired thug, this lapsed Liberal takes nothing that surrounds him too seriously, which helps in a movie so driven by a political agenda. Among the giant cast, Darryl Hannah also stands out, for giving the film a kick in the pants when it needs it most.


    Unfortunately, the lackadaisical tone that Hustonís presence brings also keeps the film from accumulating in power in the way that many of Saylesí films manage to, despite the unevenness of their individual scenes. Itís frequently difficult to get a grip on whether a given interaction is being taken seriously, played for laughs, or being looked at as such a sad state of affairs that one can only respond with laughter. If this film, like all film noir, is meant to reflect the undiscussed values of the times that created it, then by setting his film almost entirely in the day, Sayles is pointing out that corruption is a universally accepted open secret in our modern political arena. Itís an excellent starting point for a film to make, but itís scarcely developed as the movie progresses, and isnít a very dramatically satisfying conceit. In fact, only a few short scenes, such as one in which a visit to a construction site demonstrates political corruption operating on a smaller scale or another in which we see the media-castrating power of Corporate America at work, manage to dramatize it at all. Many see Sayles as a maverick force in independent American cinema, and forgive his weaknesses as a director as a result, but his latest is filled with whiny, ceaselessly expository scenes (one includes a slideshow!) that not only are badly staged, but also poorly written. To these eyes, his most successful works (Passion Fish, Limbo) are those that have the least to prove to an audience that Sayles should realize is already largely on his side.



Jeremy Heilman