John Sayles, a loyally independent filmmaker who has made a career of playing by his own rules rather than those of a studio's idea of what is marketable, adds another challenging, ambitious film to his repertoire with "Silver City." Although this latest project is more sweeping and well-realized than his too-short, disappointing last, 2003's "Casa de los Babys
," it, unfortunately, is only a quarter-step up from that misfire and three full steps back from his best pictures. Sayles' career up until now has been filled with nearly one distinctly original, dynamic work after the next, from 1992's "Passion Fish" to 1997's "Men with Guns" to 1999's "Limbo" to 2002's "Sunshine State," and, at the least, you have to admire a man who, in both subject and setting, never repeats himself.
"Silver City" features the same loose, laid-back style Sayles has become revered for, and his ensemble of characters, some related to one another and other's not, seductively drift in and out of view in a deceptive story that isn't really about what it at first seems to be about. His setting this timeDenver, Coloradois purely original and intriguingly glimpsed from all different angles, giving the viewer a strong impression of what this mountainous midwest city is really like. As a travelogue, and enriched by gorgeous on-location cinematography by Edward Done and Haskell Wexler, "Silver City" is an intoxicating gem whose undeniable sense of place is the most memorable character of all.
Where writer-director John Sayles hits a road block is in his weak use of a large, mega-talented ensemble (there are no less than 20 major speaking roles) within a savory premise that loses sight of its objectives and becomes downright useless. The film is also tonally uneven, with the first half wavering more toward threadbare black comedythe type that glaringly swoops down every couple minutes only to hit a brick wall and be met by the sounds of chirping cricketsand the second hour becoming an admittedly shrewd murder-mystery. At its center is a limp political satire, one almost shockingly insipid and unenlightening while taking easy, none-too-subtle potshots at President George W. Bush. While Bush may be open to ridicule (you will never hear me saying I like the guy as a President), Michael Moore's recent documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11
" did a notably more mature, sly job at roasting this country's leader. For a superior example of a smarter satire, Alexander Payne's hilariously biting 1999 film, "Election
," is not to be missed. In comparison, "Silver City" says nothing new, interesting, or worthwhile about politics that wasn't already known or done better in the past.
Just as Colorado's 2004 gubernatorial race is heating up, lunkhead candidate Dicky Pilager (Chris Cooper), an outwardly nice guy who also happens to be a "grammatically-challenged" dimwit, reels in a corpse while filming an environmental political ad. Dicky's relentless campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), is horrified of what this may mean for Dicky's electoral chances if word gets out. Enter fired-journalist-turned-private-detective Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), hired to figure out if the dead body has any connection with Pilager's list of possible enemies. His investigation leads him to a varied list of Denver residents and groups, including Pilager's archery-playing, pot-smoking estranged sister (Daryl Hannah); illegal migrant workers (Cajardo Lindsey, Rodney Lizcano); high stakes lobbyists (Billy Zane); anarchists (Tim Roth, Thora Birch); and media conglomerates. Along the way, Danny is reunited with the ex-girlfriend (Maria Bello) he never got over, a reporter who is covering the race for Governor and may also still hold a flame for him.
Where "Silver City" is going is impossible to guess, a usual attribute that fails this particular film because it doesn't really go anywhere of note. Sayles has an unaffected crystal vision of what life is really like and how people interact. Because of this, some relationships are left open, others are never given a chance to begin, and some involved parties enter and exit each other's view without so much as either of them noticing. The goals of the charactersin this case, the central murder investigation plotoftentimes implode without warning, leading to both dead ends and unexpected discoveries. This unorthodox but pure filmmaking and screenwriting style is a refreshing aside from the neat-and-tidy workings of Hollywood, and there is a peculiar intrigue in the second half of "Silver City" as Danny's detective work arouses thriller aspects to the story. When the big reveal occurs concerning the how's, who's, and why's of the dead body, it is an afterthought, deceptive in that the investigation has little to do with anything and everything to do with the ironic, tasteless final scene. Outside of the investigation, the film goes off on free-floating tangents so unhurried and directionless that they add up to a shot of Nyquil.
The cast is one of great acclaim, and for rightful reasons, but more of them are underused to the point of distraction. As private detective Danny O'Brien, Danny Huston (2003's "21 Grams
") does the trick but is oddly bland to be given the lead role duties. In fact, he's boring. Maria Bello (2004's "Secret Window
") gets some solid screen time and a few choice moments as the ex-girlfriend he pines for. From his look to his aw-shucks attitude to his clumsy speech-giving inadequacies, there is no mistaking a certain U.S. President that Chris Cooper (2003's "Seabiscuit
"), as candidate Dickie Pilager, is supposed to be emulating. What is discouraging, however, is that director Sayles never attempts to give Dickie a real character to play, his dimensions as a person about as flimsy as a wet paper towel. This is lazy.
Sayles gives the rest of the ensemble their own little quirks, which is at least more than nothing at all, but many of the characters border on thankless or are criminally misused, such as Tim Roth (2001's "Planet of the Apes
"), Thora Birch (2001's "Ghost World
"), Richard Dreyfuss (2000's "The Crew
"), Kris Kristofferson (2002's "Blade II
"), Mary Kay Place (2003's "The Safety of Objects
"), and Miguel Ferrer (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate
"). Others are more memorably original creations, with Daryl Hannah (2004's "Kill Bill: Volume 2
") delightful as Pilager's disgruntled sister; Alma Delfina and Sal Lopez indelible as two key figures who help Danny in his investigation; and Billy Zane (1998's "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died
") commanding the screen as an unlikely tobacco lobbyist who is the new boyfriend of Danny's ex.
"Silver City" is mostly intelligent filmmaking, technically, that gets in trouble by never examining its political agenda beyond face value and rarely being funny when it wants to be. Sayles' script is also unnecessarily hard to follow at times, with some characters, and their meaning to the story, enigmatic, at best. At other times, the dialogue clangs with untruth as Sayles feels the need to spell out what is happening on the screen to his audience. When Danny comes home to find his latest girlfriend has left him and taken his furniture, for example, he looks to a wall and says aloud, "I think I had a couch sitting there." Uh-huh.
"Silver City" is a hit-and-miss affair, commendable for its intricate, unpredictable storytelling but frustrating that it all adds up to a poof of smoke and a wink at the viewer. The Denver locale found in "Silver City" is at the top of its game as far as venerable cinematic settings go. Writer-director John Sayles, however, is off-the-mark this time. His movies usually end with the viewer grabbing a lot to think about, remember, and take away with them. "Silver City" ends with a collective shrug.