Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City



Silver City (2004, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfus, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah

John Sayles is not shy about his politics, and this film is definitely the work of a bleeding heart liberal. I myself am a fellow bleeding heart so I sympathize with the sentiments of the picture. However, it is a piece of cinema made out of anger and frustration and, while those elements have helped make great art, they cause Silver City to feel overly bitter and despondent, and way too didactic.

The movie opens on the filming a campaign commercial for gubernatorial hopeful Dickie Pilager (Cooper), the dim-witted son of a former governor of Colorado now believing he can win the seat. Sound familiar? Cooper’s performance, obviously modeled on President George W. Bush was very well done and, as much as I like Josh Brolin, made me wish we could have seen Cooper in Oliver Stone’s W.  During the filming of this commercial, as Pilager casts a rod into the crystalline lake in the frame, he pulls up a hand belonging to a body left in the water. Immediately, Pilager’s campaign manager (Dreyfus) thinks someone is setting Pilager up and hires a detective agency to investigate. The investigator is Danny O’Brien (Huston), a former news reporter who is less than enthusiastic at first. As he journeys deeper he becomes obsessed with Pilager’s connection to a multi-corporate mogul Wes Benteen (Kristoffersen).

On paper, this sounds like a great concept. But it fails, and it fails badly. Huston is completely unnatural in the leading role, proving to me he needs to keep to the supporting ones. I can’t figure out if it was the dialogue or actor, but he comes incredibly stiff and forced in his performance. And with Danny O’Brien as the character we are following, it makes the film that much more painful to get through. Cooper and Dreyfus deliver great performances, but aren’t in enough of the movie to make it work. I would have preferred that it had focused on the Pilager character’s campaign more and been a satire of President Bush. Instead, we get a poorly made activist film where metaphors are incredibly shallow.

The film made me feel very conflicted, as every political note it touches I am right there in support of. But it proves that when views are expressed too overtly they bog a film down. The film takes it self too seriously for the majority of the time, and when it does attempt to go light, such as when Daryl Hannah’s tough hippie character is introduced, the humor feels hollow and tainted by Sayles bitterness. Not the best work of this director; he CAN make great films about his political views (Matewan for example).

Next up: Sunshine State and my final thoughts on John Sayles.

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