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Silver City – 2004

Written and Directed by John Sayles
Starring Danny Huston, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy

Things have dried up in the political satire arena of late. There is tons of it, but rarely anything that amounts to memorable in any universal way. The person who holds the highest office is a walking, talking satire. Even so, no one really can get beyond their own biases in order to point out things that are true to more than their own voting block. John Sayles’ attempt at bringing to light the idiocy of the Bush presidency through a murder mystery is an example of how hard it is to get this satire thing down. It’s one of his worst films, yet it is still better than most of the stuff you see today.

Sayles is one great film maker. Two of his films, Matewan and Lone Star, rank in the top 25 for me of all time. Lone Star is Top 10. He understands the subtlety of groups of people mixing together. He knows it’s messy a lot of the time. He also understands that people are generally good, but liable to be led by those who are not.

It’s likely no coincidence that Sayles places Danny Huston in the center of this movie. Given his father’s presence in the Nicholson classic, Chinatown, the irony of having Danny play the protagonist of Silver City is intended to draw comparisons. Sadly, it’s Huston who is the weakest link in the film. His performance is lopsided and directly reflects the poorest aspects of the script. Huston goes back and forth between smart ass and sad sack whenever the plot requires. It’s like he doesn’t understand the character he’s playing as a person, but instead just plays the emotions from scene to scene.

Early on, we see investigator Danny O’Brien coming back to his apartment to find his girlfriend has left. This is demonstrated with an awkwardness not usually seen in Sayles’ films. He looks to a spot on the wall where there is a set of couch pillows set carefully against the wall on the floor. This, we find, is because the couch was taken with her. Why did she leave the pillows placed exactly as they’d appear on the couch with which they belong?  So we get the chance to see Danny exclaim that she took the couch, of course.

His is not by any stretch the only poor performance in the film. It’d be easier to point out the good ones than to reflect those who didn’t do their best work for a director who usually gets the best out of his acting talent.

Bello is confused as I have seen her, and this is also Sayles’ doing. Only an economy of characters would demand that her hard-hitting investigative reporter be romantically involved with not one, but two political operatives who are on the opposition.

Dreyfuss is supposed to be a Karl Rove operative, when it’s obvious to anyone who ever read or saw anything about the “turd blossom” that he acted nothing like Richard Dreyfuss. And yes, I wrote it that way because Dreyfuss can only act like himself in comedies / satires.

The best thing about this film is Cooper, who’s impression of a Bush like politician is spot on. His work with Kristofferson is some of the best in the film. They have the essentials of how a good, willing puppy like Bush ever got propped up for a leadership position that resonates even today. Pointing out that he is a true believer who works for those who could care less hits on exactly on the nose. It’s why so many people fell in line behind him and continue to view him fondly even though they knew his administration was a sham.

The mistake Sayles makes with this story is thinking he could wrap these nuggets around a sub-par mystery, played hamhandedly with less deliberation than he’d shown in the past. Like those barrels with “Toxic” floating in the well that Danny falls into imply, the movie tries to mix sound political thinking with a Scooby Doo style mystery.

This is one Sayles film that deserved to wallow in obscurity.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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