Silver City (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/12/05 15:47:45

"More Sayles goodness."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Those of you looking to “Silver City” to see a scathing parody of George W. Bush may be disappointed to learn that Chris Cooper’s Dickie Pilager is in reality just a supporting player in John Sayles’ comic mystery. Despite the previews suggesting otherwise, this movie isn’t about Dickie at all, but about a floating corpse Dickie unwittingly discovers one day. All the stuff about Pilager being a simple-minded fortunate son is merely a side note in a larger satire, one that goes beyond Dubya, and into the world of right-wing politics in general.

To summarize the convoluted, free-flowing plot would require a few hours and a heavy volume written in a small font, so allow me then to summarize the summary: Dickie’s running for governor in Colorado, a John Doe washes up during a photo op, journalist/private eye Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) is hired by the Pilager camp to put a lid on things, his investigations lead to bigger scandals. That’s the short take. In a mere two hours, Sayles crams in thirty-some characters and countless subplots, all of which weave in and out of the main murder mystery.

The mystery is, in itself, great stuff, really. Danny makes for a wonderfully cynical hero, the kind of down-on-his-luck ramshackle of a guy who might’ve taken the lead role in many a film noir and pulp novel, had he only had a quick fist and a square jaw. Danny’s a loser’s loser, a drunk who wanders through the plot, a nose for trouble and a determination to set things right the only things going for him. It’s telling that once Danny figures everything out, he’s incapable of getting any further, and must then pass on his information to those who can. To watch Huston ramble through this picture is to recall the cynical detective yarns of the 1970s.

The murder is the base of the plot, that which keeps things rolling ahead, but Sayles, always one to push bigger ideas into his works, uses the story to comment on all things politics. At its core, “Silver City” is a biting tirade on the current anti-enviromental policies of the Bush administration (“Pilager” is hardly a subtle character name), with sleazoids selling their contaminated land by pushing the upside of pollution, and with corporations doing whatever it takes to pump a few extra bucks into their profit margin. The final shot of the film, aside from being perfectly fitting in a story that leaves so much open in the end, looks to be Sayles’ one-image attack on anyone who prefers dollars over health, safety, and general goodness. One watches the final shot and wants to laugh, if only it weren’t so devastatingly true.

We also get nods toward political lobbying, the ineffectiveness of today’s news media, and the notion that most politicians are “owned,” for lack of a better word, by big business - the moguls and millionaires who contribute to campaigns as a means of buying access, or more. And, of course, there’s Cooper’s Dickie, always stumbling over his words, always easily led by his handlers, always pushing for the shallow sound bite.

Again, we want to laugh at “Silver City,” and often do, but there’s a bitterness that fills the picture. Sayles gives us not a story of hope, but of hopelessness. Danny’s fighting a no-win cause, and that could be Sayles’ ultimate message: that the powers that be are screwing us but good, and there’s not much we can do about it but enjoy a solid mystery and laugh our resigned laughs. “Silver City” does not attempt to fix the system, only to let us notice it - which, as a first step, is better than no step at all.

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