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Sayles’s ‘Silver City’ Mines Flaws in Modern Politics
by Jeremy Mathews
 
 

[Read Jeremy’s interview with John Sayles, conducted at the Sundance Film Festival during the period Sayles was editing “Silver City.”]

“Silver City”
Newmarket Films
Written and directed by John Sayles
Produced by Maggie Renzi
Starring Danny Huston, Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Richard Dreyfuss, Miguel Ferrer, Daryl Hannah, Kris Kristofferson, Mary Kay Place, Michael Murphy and Tim Roth
Rated R

(out of four)

 
Every polititian is a cowboy at heart.  

The corpse on the gubernatorial candidate’s fishing hook isn’t the only rotten thing in the water. In “Silver City,” writer/director/editor John Sayles suggests that the media-accessible story of a corpse showing up at a campaign commercial shoot isn’t nearly as interesting as the complicated truth of how the corpse got there. Sayles’s political satire turns a murder mystery into a tour of the dubious workings of modern politics. And it takes a private investigator to sort out the lobbyists, politicians, corporations and journalists involved in the mess.

The candidate is a less than brilliant political—and financial—heir named Dickie Pillager, who doesn’t demand much stretching of the imagination to become George W. Bush. It almost doesn’t seem right to praise Sayles’s observant dialogue and Chris Cooper’s dead-on, because it so accurately captures Bush’s inept grammar, short sound bites and ability to avoid questions like a schoolboy who didn’t prepare for class. While the deft satire is quite pointed and successful, a Bush press conference has about as many laughs. To push it any further would make it overly broad and unbelievable. Sayles and Cooper have faith that the ridiculous nuances will show through.

While the black humor gets several laughs, Sayles also draws from dark stories like “Chinatown” as his main character, Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), becomes more and more aware of the scope of shady influences that affect political discourse.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Pillager’s campaign manager, Chuck Raven, who fits nicely into the Karl Rove position in the Bush parallels. Another similarity comes from Pillager’s father (Michael Murphy), a prominent U.S. senator who has reluctantly endorsed his hapless son. When the body shows up, Raven quickly moves the shoot to a new location and harbors suspicion, given cause by his own political methods, that one of his enemies has set him up.

So he he hires a firm to investigate some enemies—and let them know they’re being watched—and Danny gets the assignment. Surprisingly, none of the three enemies are on the opponent’s campaign and include a right-wing talk-show host and Dickie’s nymphomaniac sister (Daryl Hannah). The host is more bitter about Raven’s ruthless tactics, which spoiled his own ambitions in his college years, than about Pillager’s incompetence as a candidate. But his mentality when he blasts Pillager on air is that he’s still better than his opponent, “a known communist.”

Huston, known mainly for his descent into dark drug addiction in the somewhat obscure “Ivansxtc,” creates a character somewhat off-putting in his investigative technique, which appears as awkward acting in the early parts of the film. As it progresses, however, his performance seems more natural. The peripheral cast, with Cooper and Hannah standing out with the flashiest roles, is universally strong. In addition to Dreyfuss’s performance, Kris Kristofferson plays a business Tycoon with strong ties to the Pillager family. Maria Bello plays Nora, Danny’s ex-girlfriend who works for a local paper and is pretty much relegated to quoting Pillager’s unclear statements. Tim Roth appears as the editor of a dirt-digging liberal Web page who used to edit Danny’s newspaper before Danny was set up on a scoop and lost his job and reputation. Roth’s character, Mitch, works in the hope that eventually some of his stories will be picked up by reputable papers, who will not give him any credit. Mitch helps Danny with some investigative details, although he can’t tell Mitch what he’s working on.

Mitch fills in Danny on the questionable connections of the Pillager campaign, and Danny further learns how his client and his keepers have gained and used power as he investigates the different angles of the corpse’s death and the political campaign.

The murder mystery slightly echoes that of the long-dead skeleton that turns up in “Lone Star,” one of Sayles’s masterpieces, but the Sayles trademark really lies in his ability to manage a huge ensemble of characters as he explores a unique environment. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler captures the beautiful bit of nature that surrounds story of people pulling strings to do it harm. Once again Sayles has creates a world where nothing is simple and there are no easy answers. Reporters have to make a living, so sometimes end up in a job where, as Raven puts it, “we won’t tell you how to report the news if you don’t tell us how to stage it.”

But if more people are willing to open their eyes and investigate, there’s still room for change.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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