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In 'Silver,' Sayles' hero needs a hand

September 17, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Writer-director John Sayles is one of the godfathers of the American independent movement. He's made remarkable pictures like "Matewan," "Eight Men Out" and "Lone Star" that have seamlessly melded dramatic interest and socio-political concerns. "Silver City" is not one of them, though it's not for lack of trying.

That's an unhappy conclusion to reach, and not only out of respect for Sayles' previous achievements. It's also because "Silver City's" attempt to be an engaged, contemporary political drama that deals with pressing issues sounds so promising. But a series of miscalculations caused this project to lose its way, until what we're left with is a film that should involve us more than it does.

Definitely not a miscalculation is the always engaging Chris Cooper as Richard Pilager, sometimes known as Dim Dickie, the son of a powerful U.S. senator, who is ahead in the race to be the next governor of the great state of Colorado.

Though the story of a conservative Colorado elite brings the Coors family to mind, Dickie's willingness to mangle syntax and his reputation as being "not a fine-print kind of guy" are meant to echo another political son. "My message to criminals is this," Dickie is wont to say in high dudgeon. "You straighten out or leave the state."

Cooper is so deft as Dickie, rattling on about "that precious word, 'freedom,' " that you expect him to occupy a larger share of screen time than he does. But in one of "Silver City's" more puzzling aspects he serves more as a catalyst than a presence as the film's plot evolves without giving him a lot of visibility.

"Silver City" opens on one of Colorado's picturesque rivers where the candidate and ace campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) are about to film a commercial known familiarly as "the bucolic fishing thing." But when Dickie casts his line, what he hooks is not some beautiful trout but a large and very dead human being.

Raven, suspecting the corpse did not just accidentally wander into his candidate's vicinity, hires Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), one-time crusading journalist and lapsed idealist turned lethargic private detective, to look up people who might want to do his boy harm. "Give them a good stiff warning," the Raven advises. "Nothing actionable."

The people in question include:

Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), a rabidly conservative talk show host who'd run Dickie out of the state "if he wasn't running against a known communist";

Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), a crusading environmentalist the Pilager family has, well, pillaged;

Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), the candidate's rogue sister and potential Olympic archer who alternates between seducing men and shooting arrows at them.

Dealing with these people and a whole mess of others (the film's press notes list 19 key characters) allows "Silver City" to have its say about a range of political issues, including the power of special interests epitomized by the shadowy Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), who believes that privatizing public lands will "liberate those reserves for the American people."

Though Sayles' political sensibility has a weakness for the earnest and didactic, we end up wishing "Silver City" had more politics to it. Instead the politics start to feel peripheral to a neo-noir romance plot that is definitely not Sayles at his best.

Perhaps the film's core miscalculation is the casting of actor Huston (director John Huston's son) as the film's protagonist, the audience surrogate who is our guide through the strange and sinister world of contemporary hardball politics.

Though Huston is a capable actor who appeared to good affect in "Ivan's xtc," he has too much of an off-center, sidekick persona to be effective as the designated hero. His O'Brien is such a wheedling, irritating presence, so out to lunch in so many areas, that the movie's insistence that we root for him to reunite with his ex, ace political reporter Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), is a major nuisance.

"Silver City" is also not well served by the clumsy mechanics of its crime plot and its lack of emotionally believable characters. While John Sayles has thankfully not lost what the film calls "the ability to be scandalized," he has misplaced some of his dramatic sense, and that is not a good thing.


'Silver City'

MPAA rating: R for language

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Danny Huston ... Danny O'Brien

Richard Dreyfuss ... Chuck Raven

Chris Cooper ... Richard "Dickie" Pilager

Kris Kristofferson ... Wes Benteen

Daryl Hannah ... Maddy Pilager

Released by Newmarket Films. Director John Sayles. Producer Maggie Renzi. Screenplay John Sayles. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Editor John Sayles. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Mason Daring. Production design Toby Corbett. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes..

In limited release.

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