In "Silver City," writer/editor/director John Sayles rolls a "Chinatown"-esque murder mystery, cynical political commentary and pointed observations about contemporary media into one film that succeeds more often than not. There are moments when I got the impression Sayles was trying too hard to drive home his point about Dickie's incompetence. As fun as it might have been to mock Dickie, he's too easy a target. The greasy players around Dickie - for instance, his handler Chuck Raven (played with smarmy charm by Richard Dreyfuss) - are far more interesting. Where "Silver City" crackles is in its distrust of our political system, the influence of slimy corporate types on candidates and ineptitude of the media.
Despite this being one of Sayles' weaker films, he remains one of the finest filmmakers this nation has produced in the last 25 years. His filmography contains some of the best independent films in recent memory - "Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980), "Lianna" (1983), "Matewan" (1987), "Eight Men Out" (1988), "Passion Fish" (1992), his masterpiece, "Lone Star" (1996) and "Men With Guns" (2000). Even much of his lesser-known works, "City of Hope" (1991), "The Secret of Roan Inish" (1994) and "Limbo" (1999), are remarkable pieces of storytelling. He's also socially conscious, acutely aware of the importance of shedding light on social problems, be they the plight of immigrants, childless couples or corruptibility of politicians.
What's ultimately a bit disappointing about "Silver City" is not so much its multi-layered story, but Sayles' inability to keep it tightly wound. As much as I admire Sayles, another editor with a fresh set of eyes might have helped tremendously.
He's deftly handled multi-story plots before, but this film doesn't seem keenly focused. Sayles weaves too many threads that don't patch together all that well. He relies a bit too much on coincidence - especially using two migrant workers in a pivotal plot point - to unravel his mystery and many interesting subplots and characters remain dangling, most glaringly a subplot involving reporter Nora (an under-used Mario Bello) and her fiancé Chandler (Billy Zane), a self-proclaimed "champion of the underdog" - he's a big-business and tobacco lobbyist.
The actors, many of them Sayles regulars, are terrific, as usual. Chris Cooper plays Dickie with great aplomb, but Sayles surprisingly wastes other talented actors in throwaway roles. Tim Roth, Thora Birch and Daryl Hannah have little to do in roles that scream for more importance. Hannah gets some of the best dialogue, but her Maddy Pilager needed more screen time.
Sayles' Jake Gittes is reporter-turned-investigator Danny O'Brien, who's more akin to Elliot Gould's Marlowe than Bogart's. Danny Huston plays O'Brien with tremendous charm, but Huston lacks the magnetism of his sister, father or grandfather. David Strathairn might have worked better. Another Sayles regular, Joe Morton, would have been a fascinating choice.
Sayles' cynicism about our wimpy media and political process is well founded. We're, after all, living in an age when the media ignored the real story behind the Florida debacle in the 2000 election (the disenfranchisement of hundreds, if not thousands, of black voters); reporters shirk their duties for fear of being branded as unpatriotic; major newspapers issue mea culpas for swallowing everything this administration served up, never questioning its motives in the lead up to the (utterly meaningless and pointless) war in Iraq; political candidates hold "town meetings" with pre-screened audiences who sign loyalty oaths and serve up pre-arranged softball questions; and at least one TV news network's mostly a mouthpiece for a political party.
Sayles' forte's always been excellent dialogue and when he moves away from Dickie, the writing often is smart, piercing and worthy of his best work. There are two especially razor-sharp moments - between Chuck and Danny at a bar, and a post-coitus Maddy.
"Silver City" is by no means mediocre. And, frankly, even mediocre Sayles would be better than most of what Hollywood makes. Though this film still is better than most at the multiplex right now, this is sub par Sayles. He set the standard so high with "Matewan" and "Lone Star" that we expect better from him.
"Silver City" concludes on a symbolic, cautionary note about the dangers of allowing the Dickie Pilagers of this world to win. The scary thing is we already have a real-life Dickie Pilager. And despite his good intentions, he's more dangerous than anyone fiction could ever create.
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