Why, oh why, did I not listen to Jonathan Rosenbaum?
Hmm, I blame it on my case of auteurism; it sometimes leads to me to do some crazy things, like go to movies I know are probably going to be bad. Its not that Silver City
did not show some signs of potential, and Sayles is just too good of a writer and director of actors to make a film completely devoid of interest (he is also one of the few, relatively mainstream directors to tackle such thorny issues as race and class), but Silver City
, a rather clumsy fusion of film noir and political activism, is no Lone Star
. Like that earlier film, Silver City
is centered around an investigation, an investigation prompted by the discovery of a mysterious body. In turn that investigation dredges up many dark secrets in the local community, a community represented here by a tapestry of interconnected characters. Specifically, Silver City
is set in the closing weeks of the 2004 Colorado gubernatorial campaign, when the leading candidate, Dickie Pilager, the bumbling scion of a prominent, Republican family (clearly a Dubya stand-in, here played by Chris Cooper), accidentally hooks the body of a migrant worker while filming an “environmental” spot. Suspecting some sort of political dirty trick, the conniving campaign manager Chuck Raven (aka Karl Rove, played by Richard Dreyfuss) hires a PI, a disgraced former reporter named Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) to investigate (i.e. intimidate some potential political enemies). However, O’Brien begins to ferret out the truth, leading to a quagmire of corruption, industrial safety violations, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of illegal, migrant workers. So what went wrong?
1. When we speak of the great actors who have worked with Sayles, like the before mentioned Chris Cooper or David Strathairn, we will not be adding the name of Danny Huston. Since Cooper is pretty much wasted doing an impression of our current president, Huston, who can charitably be described as bland, is left to anchor the film. When ex-girlfriend Nora (Maria Bello) describes Huston’s character as “intense,” I almost laughed. While I can see Huston doing great in the role of a milquetoast (and to be fair, the film does utilize this quality, since O’Brien frequently finds himself way over his head), a former crusading journalist, turned sellout, turned back to a crusading investigator is somewhat beyond his reach.
2. No one who has ever watched a Sayles film can ever say that he is particularly subtle when it comes to making his political points (come on, two of the main “bad guys” are named Pilager, a family which made its fortune gouging miners and shoveling shit, and Raven), and here he is no different (case in point, the boring scene where Kris Kristofferson’s sinister developer Benteen explains to the dimwitted Dickie his conception of progress). Going hand in hand with this lack of subtly is a tendency towards being schematic; certain characters are clearly inserted into the narrative simply as an expositional talking point or representative of some sort of political POV (or both). Sayle’s saving grace is that his characterizations, even in the smaller parts, are usually quite interesting, and the personal storylines that are intertwined with the political themes carry equal weight. However, unlike such Sayles films as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, and Lone Star, I can barely point to an interesting supporting character (the one exception would be the colorful Mexican-American chef, played by Sal Lopez, who assists O’Brien with his investigation) and the personal storylines are far less interesting and far less integrated into the political storyline (the political storyline itself seems kind of jammed together, as if Sayles decided to combine his expose on the plight of migrant workers with a Bush-surrogate satire). I mean, who cares whether or not Huston and Bello get back together, the hook that the personal storyline hinges upon (their complete lack of chemistry does not help), and which really has no relation with main political storyline (I guess Huston “redeems” himself and wins back Bello, but compare this with the events of Lone Star)? In addition, Sayles desire to interconnect all the disparate characters can lead to some truly bizarre and unnecessary relationships, such that romance between progressive journalist Bello and an oily lobbyist in bed with the Pilagers, played by Billy Zane (that entire relationship left me saying, “huh?”).
3. I guess after Casa de los Babys, Sayles decided not to write an interesting part for a female character in his next film, which is a damn shame since he is usually so good at it. Most of the female characters barely register, in fact, one of the main female characters is never actually seen. The one exception is Daryl Hannah’s character, Mady Pilager, the family black sheep; it is a cliched, inconsistent role, but at least it is half way interesting, more so than the fawning Bello. However, it is nice to know that Sayles and Tarantino are both contributing to Hannah’s mid-career renaissance.
4. Usually, when watching Sayles’s films, I get a very clear sense of place such as the Appalachians of Matewan; the bayous of Passion Fish; the dusty prairies of southwest Texas in Lone Star; and even the coastal Florida town in Sunshine State. In Silver City, the wide open spaces and mountains of Timberline County, Colorado are somewhat anonymous. Much of the film is apparently set in or near Denver, but the film does not dwell among the people of the local community soaking in the details (a la Limbo). In addition, though the natural scenery is often beautiful, I personally felt that Haskell Wexler’s photography was often quite flat and uninspired.
There is not a whole lot more to say. Jonathan Rosenbaum points to the aesthetic poverty of the film, and I can not help but agree. There really are no surprises, either in terms of style or narrative (the most annoying aspect of the film are some sub-Godardian intertitles containing Pilager’s campaign slogans), though contrary to Rosenbaum’s opinion, I found the film’s ending to be appropriately cynical. Still, though Rosenbaum cites the plethora of left-wing political documentaries that have preceded Silver City
, I think viewers looking for (fictional) drama centered around a political campaign should look to such classic 60s and 70s films as Nashville
, The Candidate
, or Medium Cool