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Safe & Silent


Silver City

John Sayles, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.0



Posted: September 22, 2004

By Laurence Station

Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 took the fight directly to the current administration. John Sayles’ drama Silver City prefers an opposite tactic: It’s a rallying cry for the weary and defeated. Apathy has supplanted outrage, which is Sayles’ ultimate point. The idea for Silver City came about during the making of Sunshine State; it's a product of Sayles’ bewilderment at how quickly people in Florida lost any sense of indignation at the bungled voting process of the 2000 presidential election and resigned themselves to idly falling back and accepting the end result.

Nearly four years later, the same voters are presumably still paying the bill for their lack of concern. Sayles’ “You get the government you deserve” message is downbeat and sobering. Dramatically, such a concession all but dooms the film to having no discernible payoff -- the acclaimed writer/director even sidesteps a juicily ironic one (dead fish bobbing to the surface of a poisoned lake just doesn't cut it). Silver City isn’t so much a wakeup call as it’s a manifestation of what happens when people stop asking questions and start accepting spoon-fed answers.

Silver City peripherally follows the political aspirations of a Colorado gubernatorial candidate, the not-very-subtly named Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper). Even worse than a walking malapropism, Dickie is a total cipher: there’s absolutely nothing behind his distinctly Bush-like folksy demeanor and “on-message” stump gestures. Pilager is concisely summed up by Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston, son of the late director John), an ex-journalist turned investigative gumshoe for the Pilager campaign, who notes while watching Dickie on television how much more impressive he appears when muted.

Danny, not Dickie, is the movie's true focus. A former idealistic reporter who was fired after his sources vanished on a corruption piece and the paper he worked for got sued, Danny now delivers trite intimidation messages (“you’re being watched”) to presumed Pilager enemies, one of whom is the wannabe governor’s pot-smoking, bow-wielding sister (Daryl Hannah). Danny’s also piecing together facts regarding the death of a migrant worker whose demise may or may not be linked to the Pilager family and its primary bankroller, modern-day cattle baron (and egregious labor rights abuser) Wes Benteen (played with appropriate grit by Kris Kristofferson). Danny’s also got romantic issues: His girlfriend has left him and the love of his life, Nora (Maria Bello), is engaged to a stereotypically slithery lobbyist (Billy Zane).

Not unlike Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (a film to which Silver City owes no small debt, via its winding plot, festering cynicism and Huston family connection), Danny finds that the more he learns, the less he wants to know. What he does learn is that he can’t affect any change on the events around him, even if he cared to -- and he just doesn’t have the resolve to see things through to the bitter end. Even a hot tip he anonymously leaves at the office of a Drudge Report-like website comes across as half-hearted.

The big difference between Chinatown and Silver City is that the Watergate-era Chinatown was a ’30s period noir indirectly commenting on its present, whereas Silver City is an explicit observation in its moment. The problem with this is that no matter how salient its comments regarding proactive watchdogs of the media and politicians, the fact that Danny has thrown in the towel -- even though that’s the entire point -- is defeatist and safe. By concentrating on a non-player like Danny, and justifying Pilager’s lack of development as self-evidence of the man’s inherent vacuity, Sayles takes the easy way out. He’s not so much taking a stand as he’s slamming those who failed to take a position during the last election. But wrapping his message inside a toothless detective yarn deflates its effectiveness.

Silver City is neither a great genre piece nor a potent political alarmist screed. John Sayles is certainly passionate about his causes, but unfortunately he fails to articulate them as forcefully here as he’s done in the past. Fortunately, Matewan and Men With Guns are readily available on home video.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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