Silver City (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

John Sayles has always made political films; they are his bread-and-butter. Yet none, not even Matewan or City of Hope, has been more openly partisan than Silver City, which rips into the anti-environmental policies of the current administration, shows the pointlessness of fighting the co-op of big business and bigger government, and presents a scathing caricature of our current president in the person of Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), the man who would be governor of Colorado. Pilager is all smiles and charm, yet, beneath the polished surface, there's nothing. Yet, because Sayles has a story to tell, and his tale is both compelling and alarming, Silver City is unlike Fahrenheit 9/11. This is a movie, not propaganda, and, while it doesn't shy away from displaying its political stripes, it is not a tract, nor is its goal to influence the 2004 election. Sayles is simply presenting today's circumstances as he sees them.

Silver City is Sayles' best effort since Limbo, and incorporates many of the same complexities (both in terms of characters and situations) that made Lone Star such an unexpected success. It's refreshing to see Sayles rebound after the mis-fire of Casa de Los Babys, arguably the only real dud in his lengthy directorial career (which has now spanned more than two decades). Perhaps the return of longtime partner Maggie Renzi to the producer's role has something to do with it. She was notably absent from the credits for Casa de Los Babys, the first time that has happened since the late 1980s.

Silver City takes us into the 2004 Colorado gubernatorial race. The odds-on favorite to win is Dickie Pilager (not the most subtle last name for an anti-environmentalist), the son of popular Senator Judd Pilager (Michael Murphy). Dickie looks the part, and, as long as he sticks to the text of a prepared speech, he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, even if he does promise something for everyone. But if circumstances force him to talk extemporaneously, he becomes a stammering, incoherent idiot. "Don't ever let yourself get caught out in the open like that again," cautions his campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), after one such incident.

When the appearance of a dead body at one of Dickie's speaking engagements threatens to embarrass the candidate, Raven hires private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston) to do some detective work. Danny, who has a checkered past (he was fired from The Denver Monitor for fabricating a story, when, in reality, he was set up), starts digging deeper than his employers want him to, and his investigation leads him to Dickie's sister (Daryl Hannah) and a gangster type who "imports" illegal migrant workers. He also ends up mucking around in an abandoned silver mine that holds a few buried secrets. And his path crosses with old flame Nora (Maria Bello), who is currently engaged to a materialistic lobbyist (Billy Zane).

Silver City offers a bitter antidote to feel-good, "true" stories like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, in which ordinary citizens go up against big businesses and win. Silver City illustrates that those are exceptions to the rule. Sayles never lets us forget where the real power exists in this country. He also makes a telling point about why seemingly unqualified candidates win elections. "You make people feel like they're part of a winner, and they'll follow you anywhere." Dickie isn't qualified to hold any elected position, let alone that of governor, but people like him and he leads in the polls, so he'll win by a landslide. There's also this statement: "People have lost the ability to be scandalized" - a snippet of wisdom that expresses not only what's happening in Washington now, but how Clinton remained popular through his eight years in the White House. That's American politics today, and it's not necessary to be a cynic to recognize the truth in what Sayles is saying.

Although there's a lot of politics in Silver City, this is first and foremost a detective story. Since Sayles is the man behind the camera, however, don't expect any car chases or other typical action sequences. Danny's investigation is all about procedure, and peeling back the layers of corruption to reveal deeper secrets. There are no real shocks; dead people don't suddenly turn up alive and any smoking gun has long since rusted under the waters that have flooded most of the silver mines. But there's solid character development, some interesting subplots (such as the developer trying to get the zoning board to approve his petition to turn a tract of questionable land into a planned community and the plight of illegal immigrants who end up trapped in a cycle of forced labor), and a nicely understated romance (between Danny and Nora) to spice things up.

Silver City features an unusually high profile cast for a Sayles movie. Several veterans of his previous features return, including Kris Kristofferson (as the spider at the center of the web, big businessman Wes Benteen), Chris Cooper, Daryl Hannah, and (in a small role) Alfre Woodard. (No David Strathairn, however.) Joining them are the likes of Maria Bello, Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Zane, Tim Roth, and Thora Birch. The lead is relative unknown Danny Huston, who's a good choice. Huston's lack of familiarity with viewers makes him a natural choice to represent their surrogate in the movie.

Silver City may startle some viewers because it doesn't pull punches. It doesn't pretend that politics and business are decoupled, that the little guy can pull off the upset, or that the bottom line is anything other than money. It's refreshing, albeit grim, to see a movie that's not afraid of telling these truths. That Sayles is able to say these things in the context of a compelling story with well-defined characters makes this one of the early fall triumphs of 2004.

Silver City (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1