Silver City (2004)

Director: John Sayles


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today, on the 230th birthday of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America, I thought John Sayles’ state of the union address, Silver City, would be an appropriate film to review. I’m not a big fan of Sayles, whose films often seem like well-intentioned misfires. With this political satire, however, he shows that he can be an inspired cinematic force given the right motivation.

Silver City is a real place, but in this film it is a dream—a development for the well-heeled built on the slag heap of a silver mine closed down by federal regulators for safety and pollution violations. The developer is Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy), a man with a well-known record of failed enterprises, including his son Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who is running to be the governor of Colorado. It is during the filming of a campaign commercial designed to show Dickie to be environmentally friendly that the movie begins.

Dickie’s campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) is rehearsing Dickie on one phrase he keeps getting wrong. Dickie is not the brightest bulb in the marquee. In fact, he bears a rather strong resemblance to someone currently taking up space in the Oval Office. When Dickie finally gets the line right, the commercial moves forward. On cue, Dickie casts a fishing line into a lake. When Raven yells cut, Dickie tries to retrieve the line, but he has landed something. As he reels the line in, a human hand breaks the surface of the water. Raven instantly closes down the set and moves the shoot to an alternate location. He suspects a conspiracy to label Dickie as the candidate “who landed a stiff” in the lake to reduce him to an also-ran novelty.

Raven engages a detective agency run by Senator Pilager’s wife Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) to intimidate three suspects in the supposed conspiracy. Grace reluctantly assigns the job to Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former newspaper reporter who went to work for her after he was set up to make a false accusation in a story and dismissed from his paper. Danny is a natural investigator, but he’s still a dreamer. Grace fears he will not be up to the goon work this important client wants done.

And so he is not. When he approaches the first suspected saboteur Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), a right-wing talk radio host, Danny’s “you’re being watched” sounds more like “nice shirt” than a threat. Castleton spits his venom, challenging Raven and Pilager to come and get him. Sayles reveals this Rush Limbaugh knock-off to be an angry bully more than spoiling for a fight. Anyone will do.

Dickie’s sister Maddy is another suspect. She is a dope-smoking Olympic hopeful in archery with a mixed-race son whose conception when Maddy was a teenager upset her father’s political ambitions. When Danny approaches her, she shoots an arrow alongside his head and otherwise acts like the hostile loose cannon she is—or pretends to be. She seduces Danny and then kicks him out. Later we will see her aiming at a target that has her brother’s picture on it.

It is when Danny approaches his last suspect, Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), that he finds out what really happened to the corpse on the end of Dickie’s fishing line. Lyle, a former federal regulator who went up against ruthless business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) over the Silver City site, tells a tale of buried toxins invading the watershed. Danny attempts to get the truth out through another former reporter, Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), who runs a website dedicated to exposing conservative corruption.

Sayles has fun playing with his stereotypes. Sheriff Joe Skaggs (Joe Gammon), who is investigating the death of the floating Mexican, is all gruff frontier lawman who shows his scorn for the sissified slickers around him at every opportunity, beginning by insulting the hook on Dickie Pilager’s line. He says the hook couldn’t catch anything (although clearly it has), but as a prop, it wasn’t meant to.

Benteen rides with Dickie through open land (“We’ll make a cowboy out of you yet!”), patting himself vigorously on the back for being a man of vision. He sees money on that land but is blind to the priceless natural vista that he could never create on his own. A view won’t make Benteen rich, and he sneers at the tree huggers. Skaggs and Benteen—indeed, most of the characters in this film—are misguided in their superior attitudes that actually reflect total self-absorption. His arrow aims true at these deserving targets.

He is way off the mark, however, in setting up the central romance between Danny and Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a reporter who disloyally did not quit the paper after Danny was dismissed. Nora ended their very serious affair and is now involved with a professional middleman (Billy Zane) whom she intends to marry. This mismatch makes no sense except as a desperate run to the opposite side of the room, away from anyone like Danny. She paints Danny as the Antichrist, but she also declares that he was the love of her life. Sayles perhaps was aiming for something like the Julie Christie/Warren Beatty romance in Shampoo, but Huston and Bello have no chemistry at all, and the dialogue he saddled Bello with is weak and unmotivated.

Sayles is such a humanist that he finds a heart in all but the most ridiculous of his characters. This is both a strength and a weakness in this film and in his film-making in general. It’s hard to pull off the biting satire Silver City aspires to be, as well as the serious social commentary of such films as Casa de los babys, with vaguely focused characters about whom Sayles wants us to care. His murder mystery is so convoluted that it got tedious to follow. He includes one kind-of action scene that ends up being a fizzle—action just isn’t his strong suit. His characters’ names are a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, Silver City succeeds as few films have in presenting the essence of our national scene today and in suggesting how poisonous that scene has become. You owe it to your country to see this film! l

  • Scott spoke:
    5th/07/2006 to 9:32 pm

    Thanks for reminding me that I’ve been meaning to see Silver City for about a year. I’ve seen Chris Cooper doing the raging hardass thing about a jillion times (he’s good at it!), so I hope this character is a little more interesting. Scott

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/07/2006 to 9:38 am

    Scott, I assure you he’s anything but a hardass in this. He’s eerily like Dubya, which doesn’t make the character interesting, by definition, but makes for an enjoyable parody performance.Thanks for visiting the site!

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