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Silver City

Directed by John Sayles. Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place, Michael Murphy, Maria Bello, Tim Roth, Daryl Hannah, Kris Kristofferson. (2004, R, 129 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 17, 2004

With Silver City, John Sayles becomes the latest filmmaker to contribute his cinematic two cents to this election year's plethora of politically minded movies. Sayles’ contributions, however, have much greater value than the metaphorical two cents: The veteran writer/director has been making politically astute movies since his first feature in 1980, Return of the Secaucus Seven. His efforts, in partnership with his regular producer Maggie Renzi, have done much over the decades to elevate the general discussion about the reciprocal responsibilities between the individual and society, and how cultural expression is inextricably tied to the body politic. Silver City nevertheless is something of a disappointment. The movie, although overlong, is entertaining enough, but it is not the finely honed work of a mature filmmaker that we might have expected at this moment in time. As has been common throughout his career, Sayles creates a plot that revolves around a constellation of characters united by their common socio-geographic turf. The structure is reminiscent of recent films such as Limbo, Sunshine State, and Casa de los Babys, in which the characters represent different aspects of a specific regional milieu and their interactions become part of the local political climate. In Silver City the locale is Colorado and the subject is a fictitious gubernatorial campaign. The candidate is Dickie Pilager, who is brilliantly played by Chris Cooper (Adaptation) in a near mimicry of the speech patterns of our current grammatically challenged president and his deer-caught-in-the-headlights look whenever the discussion strays off script. It is from Cooper’s performance as dim Dickie that the movie derives its strongest political commentary – if only as a satiric spitball in the eye of political punditry. Yet like the none-too-subtly named Pilager, Silver City overdoses on an overly schematic formula that strains narrative credibility as it places its structural concerns over its characters’ needs. There lies in the background of this campaign a murder mystery, which becomes the narrative thread that drives the movie. Drawn into this political cosmos is private investigator Danny O’Brien (Huston), a disgraced reporter turned gumshoe who is hired to suss out any dirty tricks that might be behind the mysterious corpse that turns up in the movie’s opening sequence. The trail leads him into getting up close and personal with a host of characters who all have differing stakes in the campaign, but even though the mystery is ultimately solved, the clues are merely red herrings that float to the surface much like the metaphorical dead fish that engulf the screen in the film’s closing image. There is nothing subtle about Silver City, least of all the amateurish performance by lead Huston, who comes across as a low-rent Dennis Quaid minus the magnetic charisma. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of other notable actors here to carry the scenes, and Sayles does get remarkably subdued performances from scene-stealers like Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Zane, Miguel Ferrer, and Mary Kay Place. But moments of incredulity continually crop up: For example, the impending nuptials between once-impassioned reporter Nora (Bello) and sleazy corporate lobbyist Chandler (Zane) or the key Day of the Dead celebration without any visual signs of Halloween having occurred only the day before. The campaign commercials that play throughout the film have the ring of veracity, and it’s sad that the rest of Silver City lacks the same believable tone. There’s definitely ore to be mined in Silver City, but Sayles’ pan comes up with only particles of dust.

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