A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 129 mins.

Richard 'Dickie' Pilager: Chris Cooper / Danny O'Brien: Danny Huston / Nora Allardyce: Maria Bello / Karen: Thora Birch / Chuck Raven: Richard Dreyfuss / Cliff Castleton: Miguel Ferrer / Madeleine Pilager: Daryl Hannah / Wes Benteen: Kris Kristofferson / Grace Seymour: Mary Kay Place / Sen. Judd Pilager: Michael Murphy

Written, directed and edited by John Sayles

John Sales’ SILVER CITY is not quite the film that I was expecting.  Judging by the trailers for it you would think, going in, that it would be a smart, scathing, and unbridled satirical shot at the current President of the United States.  Yes, the film takes us into a fictitious 2004 Colorado gubernatorial race whose frontrunner is so remarkably like Dubya that it’s painfully hard not to notice.  Yes, Sales has a considerable amount of fun at making this political figure a damaging reflection of Mr. Bush, especially in his colloquial manner of speaking.  You know, the way that Bush revels in monosyllabic and overly simplistic platitudes that involve lots of “um’s” and “uh’s” while providing grass roots metaphors for larger issues to help cover up his genuine lack of knowledge on said issues.   

However droll this is, Sayles film is also much more than that.  It also covers the issues of anti-environment policies, illegal immigration, the heinousness of the marriage of big business and corporations with big government, the hopelessness and overall redundancy of fighting these two large partners…oh…and it’s a detective story.  All of this, ultimately, makes for a mildly amusing political satire with some genuine laughs and chuckles, but in-between that we get some wildly uneven subplots and a detective story that is bland and lacking inspiration for the most part.  SILVER CITY is a promising film that gets too bogged down in the way it meanders everywhere and eventually leaves the viewer unsatisfied at the end.  SILVER CITY is ambitious, to be sure, but its definitive failing is how uneven it is. 

Sayles, as a filmmaker, is not one that goes for overly simple narratives that want to achieve easy payoffs.  He is the type of director that bathes in waters of inner complexity, both in terms of character and the situations that they are involved in.  One of his best recent films, LONE STAR, was a success in this manner.  SILVER CITY is also a film that demands a substantial amount of investment from its audience.  With well over twenty speaking roles in the film, Sayles has a tight balancing act of trying to make them all work with a reasonable amount of success, all while trying to string together a story that also bears equal dramatic weight.  The cast he has assembled is good, to be sure, but some of the characters are focused on too briefly, some too much and, for the most part, it fails them by allowing to really shine.   Also, the film has a difficult time trying to decide exactly what it wants to be.  By the halfway point of the film, with its plot plodding around and asking us too tie together various key figures and plot points that are not altogether interesting, what remains is a film that’s rather lifeless and inert.  When the credits rolled by, I was a little relieved that it was over, maybe because I did not feel that involved in it. 

The film ostensibly centers on the campaign of the very humorously named Dickie Pilager (the very fine Chris Cooper) who is attempting to run for the Governorship of Colorado.  Tricky Dick is not engaging in this battle alone.  Behind him, with support, is his father Judd (Michael Murphy), Colorado’s most senior Senator.  Dickie is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and his portrayed more or less like a pawn in the combined efforts of other, more powerful people with larger interests.  Dickie does look the part and walk the walk of a politician.  Yes, he is nicely dressed and looks presidential.  Yes, he can be gifted at communicating a message, as long as he does not, in any way, stray from the text of the speech that was prepared for him.  However, when someone throws him a curveball or a question that challenges him even in the slightest, Dickie is reduced to a stammering simpleton who has a difficult time stringing together two or three words together in a coherent sentence.  Cooper tries, okay, goes completely out of his way, to sound like George W, Bush, and when you really step back and listen to him, the impersonation is rather uncanny.  He may not look like the current President, but just close your eyes and listen…its pretty creepy. 

Dickie has powerful friends, maybe more strong and influential than his earnest mind can even comprehend.  Dickie seems controlled by immoral industrial interests that seem hell bent on putting a stop to severe pollution and environment penalties that could, subsequently, hurt respective businesses.  Much of his campaign is being run by Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss, always watchable) who serves the very important purpose of instructing Dickie on how to do, well…everything…from walking, talking, to how to conduct himself with people, the press, you name it.  Chuck feels, at time, like an overprotective father figure to Dickie, especially after one truly embarrassing point when Dickie is reduced to a stumbling buffoon in front of the press.  “Don’t ever let yourself be trapped like that again,” Chuck pleads with Dickie at one point. 

There is a point in the film where Dickie is filming one of those A-typical, feel good film bits for his campaign.  You know, the ones where the politician is in civilian garb, with fishing poll in hand, and spouts out rhetoric about how politics sometimes reminds him how to get back in touch with nature.  Basically, the usual BS propaganda to make a candidate look good to his conservative voters.  However, while filming for this, Dickie manages to catch something mysterious on his fishing line, and it is not a pike.  After it is discovered that a dead body has managed to be caught on Dickie’s fishing line, Chuck goes into crisis management mode.  You would think that this would not be the disaster that Chuck believes it to be, but he nevertheless feels that it could have gigantic ramifications for the perception of Dickie in the public’s eyes (“Ford was seen as forever clumsy after he fell down those airplane steps, I don’t want my candidate to be remembered for catching a corpse on his fishing line!”). 

Chuck even goes further in his attempts to keep things on the hush-hush.  He hires a private eye that looks like he watched too many private eye films in his time.  He is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) and he is called upon by Chuck to investigate the case.  Danny is many things: he is quick witted and superficially naïve.  He is also forthright and authoritative, but also is quick to distract, especially when he is about to crack something serious in the case.   Danny’s past is also a bit murky, but not to his own fault, of course.  He used to work for a good newspaper and was fired for fabricating a story when, in reality, he was set up.  He turned private eye, feeling that his skills as an investigative reporter could come in handy.   

Well, his abilities do lead him to some interesting tangents.  He does come in contact with a former flame (there’s always one in these detective-noirs) named Nora (Maria Bello) who is a local journalist who thinks there may be a connection between the dead body and a certain politician.  Yet, her past is troubled as well.  She used to be a rather intrepid reporter, that was until her paper was sold to a conglomerate.  Nora’s interest helps fuel Danny’s involvement in his case.  As he progresses further he goes even deeper than his employees truly wanted him to go.  He eventually meets up with Dickie’s own sister Madeleine, played in a great supporting performance by Daryl Hannah.  She is a bold character and Hannah plays her rather fearlessly.  She likes to upsets and make people fear her, and does not have any disdain for trying to shock them, as is revealed in one moment where she just misses Danny with an arrow at target practice.  However, her character is integral in the sense that she helps Danny fill in the blanks for his case and supply a foundation that leads to a surprising link to the campaign manager.  Not only that, but further revelations abound, such as the character of a millionaire mine owner played in a small, yet distasteful, performance by Kris Kristofferson as man that is funding Dickie’s political ambitions while supporting his own questionable ones.  Beyond this, Danny’s journey is even taken to a person that imports illegal Mexican immigrants and abandoned silver mine that contains some dark secrets. 

Just by explaining the plot I don’t feel that I have not even come close to encapsulating it, and that’s precisely the problem with the film.  On its surface, it’s just too dense and tries to cover too much ground in too little time.  The film is long (over two hours) yet the story feels cobbled together of various vignettes that feel forced together to provide some cohesion.  As a detective story, the film is rather weak and ill defined, and the central character of Danny is equally uninspiring.  The film is refreshing in the one sense that it’s kind of the antithesis to other films about the environment (like ERIN BROCKOVICH, for example) in the way that it ends on a downbeat manner.  Crimes occur, the perpetrators go rather unpunished, and the people in power continue to be in power unchecked by the type of legal recourse that you would hope would be around to take care of them.  Yet, the film’s politics are all over the map, and at the conclusion of the film I felt like Sayles was largely telling me something that I think I (and many of you) already know – that our current geo-political climate is teaming with the unhealthy amalgamation of business and government.  Okay, fine, but how about investigating that and providing some commentary?  Sayles lectures on common sense issues like we never knew they existed.  What he should have done is assumed we knew them and went further with them.  Instead, we are feed unequal parts political farce, Phillip Marlow detective story, Michael Moore-esque political commentary and criticism, and a yarn about the dangers of pollution and illegal immigrant workers.  Sorry, there’s just too much going on here to sustain one film. 

Sayles is a good director, hut his talents alone could not help save SILVER CITY.  The film is a honorable failure.  It contains some truly inspired performances (especially by Hannah and Cooper, the latter not seen nearly enough in the film) while some of the others seem misused and not given enough attention (like the characters played by Kristofferson, Murphy, Dreyfuss, and one especially played by Tim Roth, a great talent wasted here).  I liked the way SILVER CITY was not trying to be an uplifting film about a crusader that ends up being triumphant in the end, and its grim conclusion more or less reflects life (big business always seem to bat a 1000 in terms of escaping the law).  However fresh the approach is, the film undeniably is too obvious with its commentary and, thus, too unsatisfying.  SILVER CITY, as a result, is too complex for its own good, an uneasy alliance between a detective thriller and a political satire that just does not leave the ground and soar to the heights that it should have achieved.  There is nothing more tedious than a political piece that goes out of its way to educate us on matters we already are privy to.

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