It's a cracking good detective yarn with hints of Chinatown and Raymond Chandler, and it's a sharp political lampoon of things we're all reading about on today's front pages. It's also a sociopolitical portrait of a state, in this case Colorado, along the lines of Sayles' Sunshine State (Florida) and Lone Star (Texas), in which picturesque environments are fractured by divisions of culture and class.
The film probably lacks the requisite sex-and-violence quotient to expand much beyond adult specialty venues. Distributor Newmarket Films certainly has a magic touch, however, with films that provoke controversy. Sayles' transparent portrait of a corrupt political dynasty that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Bush family could provide that controversy.
A gubernatorial election in Colorado has Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), the prodding, ex-alcoholic, linguistically challenged son of the state's venerable senator (Michael Murphy) running for his first public office. His dad's campaign team is in complete charge, led by take-no-prisoners manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss).
While filming an environmental TV spot, Dickie's fishing line snags the battered corpse of a migrant Latino laborer. Chuck is paranoid enough to see this unsettling incident as a dirty political trick. So he hires Grace Seymour's Mary Kay Place) detective agency not only to investigate but also to lean on a trio of individuals on the Pilager family's enemies list. The assignment falls to Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), who belongs to the noble detective-fiction tradition of the disgraced yet white knight capable of moral outrage: Formerly an idealistic journalist, Danny once walked into a political setup and got fired when his newspaper was forced to print a retraction for a muckraking story.
Huston's performance expands as the story proceeds, his loose, rumpled physicality and restless forward drive expressing an impatience with slick, insincere answers and an overpowering need to solve this riddle.
Through his eyes, the viewer is sucked deep into a vortex of corruption that whirls around a large cast of shifty characters that includes the Pilager family; media magnate/developer Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson); lobbyist Chander Tyson (Billy Zane), who happens to date O'Brien's former lover, top political reporter Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello); and Mort Seymous (David Clennon), Grace's husband, who is desperate to develop the planned community of Silver City in and around an old mine where the Pilagers and Benteen once did business.
What makes Sayles' storytelling so compelling is his uncanny ability to capture the different speech cadences of each character. There is Roven's double-speak with coded phrase meaning different things to different folks; the candidate's inability to follow a single thought all the way through a complete sentence; double-edged words that drip with cynicism belonging to his estranged sister, Maddy (Daryl Hannah); Benteen's deliberate, Orwellian misuse of such words as "freedom" and "resources"; the hate-laced verbiage from right-wing radio jock Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); and Tyson's smooth counterpunching when confronted with clear contradictions.
Not that images are neglected. Veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler, in his fourth outing with Sayles, turns film noir on its head with sun-blasted city streets and high, cloudless skies in the seemingly innocent Colorado landscape.
Writer-director-editor: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Director of photography: Haskell Wexler
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Music: Mason Daring
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Danny O'Brien: Danny Huston
Nora: Maria Bello
Dickie Pilager: Chris Cooper
Chuck Raven: Richard Dreyfuss
Sheriff Skaggs: James Gammon
Maddy: Daryl Hannah
Mitch: Tim Roth
Wes: Kris Kristofferson
Sen. Pilager: Michael Murphy
Chandler: Billy Zane
Grace: Mary Kay Place
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 128 minutes