Unlike Team America‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, writer/director John Sayles leaves no room for speculation on the nature of his political leanings with Silver City.
The movie’s Boobus Americanus gubernatorial candidate, Richard “Dim Dickie” Pilager (Chris Cooper, Adaptation), is the scion of a wealthy political empire headed by ruthless Sen. Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy, Magnolia). He’s backed by business tycoon Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson, Blade) and “guided by God” – clues that telegraph Sayles’ agenda pretty clearly. (Of course, that much might be guessed from the candidate’s improbable and unsubtle name.)
Unfortunately, whether or not your sympathies correspond with Sayles’ point of view, the filmmaker’s agenda is not the only obvious aspect of Silver City. Strip the film of its satirical side, the specificity of its George W. Bush parallels and its modern-day setting, and what you’re left with is a kind of knock-off of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, minus most of the sinister atmosphere.
You can admire Sayles’ intentions all you like, but it’s hard to defend the film as an artistic accomplishment. The set-up is good enough: While posing as a great outdoorsman and friend of the environment for a TV spot he can’t quite remember the script for, Dickie hooks a corpse on his fishing line. But it’s downhill from there.
Sayles’ development of the script is clunky, to say the least. It’s reasonable that Pilager’s handler, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), might bring in detectives (though it seems peculiar that he wouldn’t have his own myrmidons on retainer), but the handling of the case is utterly unbelievable. That a detective agency headed up by a woman (Mary Kay Place, Sweet Home Alabama) whose own fortunes are mixed up with the Pilager dynasty would assign a former crusading, environmentally conscious reporter, Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston, 21 Grams), to the case is just ridiculous.
A more dynamic performer might have helped smooth this over, but Huston is, frankly, a bit of a drag and can’t carry the film. That Raven wants a scare thrown into the three people most likely to have had something to do with this inconvenient corpse makes sense. That he turns that job over to a hired hand doesn’t.
Making things worse, Sayles’ screenplay wanders so far from this part of the assignment (while Danny becomes sidetracked by his own curiosity about the corpse) that it’s easy to forget that spooking the three suspects is central to Raven’s plan.
Part of the problem lies in Sayles’ desire to create an Altmanesque ensemble piece, and though he’s pulled that off before, he doesn’t here. The multiple sub-plots are truly tangential and most of them are too simplistic to be compelling. For example, when Danny’s ex-girlfriend Nora (Maria Bello, The Cooler) has to choose between the still idealistic Danny and utterly slimy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane, Claim), the choice is a no-brainer. And the big scene between Nora and Tyson is so flat that I spent most of it wondering what the red-flowering plant in the background was. While there’s nothing wrong with horticultural interest, I don’t think this was the point of the scene.
Too many of the subordinate characters are uninteresting or woefully underdeveloped. The most interesting character is Pilager’s wayward, dope-smoking sister, Maddy (Daryl Hannah, Kill Bill), but some of her actions are incomprehensible, and calling her “moody” hardly explains them.
Other aspects of the film are just plain sloppy. Danny takes a plunge in a pool of toxic waste that’s supposedly full of cyanide, but rather than suffer any ill effects or even concern himself over the risks, he merely spends the next reel of the movie in sopping wet, toxic clothes.
Worst of all is the fact that Silver City actually has something to say, but the film speaks in such a dull and hackneyed manner that it lacks the bite this story calls for.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke