Only a bronze

John Sayles’ Silver City is interesting ‘hodgepodge of notes and sketches’

DICKIE, NOT DUBYA Chris Cooper (<i>American Beauty, Adaptation</i>) is Dickie Pillager, a verbally challenged senator’s son running for governor.

DICKIE, NOT DUBYA Chris Cooper (American Beauty, Adaptation) is Dickie Pillager, a verbally challenged senator’s son running for governor.

Silver City
Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss and Maria Bello. Directed by John Sayles. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

John Sayles’ new multi-character drama is about a Colorado election in which Dickie Pillager (Chris Cooper), the dim-witted son of a U.S. senator, is running for governor in a spin-crazy campaign backed by wealthy demagogues. But it’s not just an election story coming out in an election year; it’s also a semi-satirical film à clef in which the dimwit candidate and his Machiavellian cronies have various telling resemblances to the incumbent and his circle in the current presidential race.

In that light, Silver City seems to promise a caustic allegory of some sort on the politics of the moment, but that promise doesn’t entirely pan out—in large part, perhaps, because the film is also a kind of disjointed murder mystery, albeit one with much political potential. A dead body, you see, floats to the surface during a lakeside photo op for the candidate, and Danny O’Brien (an ex-reporter turned half-hearted private eye played by Danny Huston) is called in to apply a little menacing pressure on the three people deemed likeliest to have planted the body in Dickie’s vicinity.

Danny’s dubious mission and a brief return to his old crusading, investigative-reporter role provide the chief narrative thread for Sayles’ rambling, episodic tale, and there’s a hangdog subplot concerning Danny’s half-dead romance with another investigative reporter (Maria Bello). But neither the crime story nor the political expose/satire ever becomes fully engaging, let alone genuinely trenchant. And Huston’s rather slack performance in the investigator role might be taken as one of the ironies in the film’s studies of flummoxed idealism—but only up to a point.

Sayles and company have a wealth of interesting material here, but the onscreen results are wildly uneven, not least because Sayles’ screenplay, atypically for him, feels like a hodgepodge of notes and sketches for an ambitious tale that never got beyond the work-in-progress stage. But the notes and sketches are not without real interest, however fitful, and the film’s strongest appeal is in its generous array of slice-of-life character portraits.

Richard Dreyfuss is superb as Dickie’s brutally efficient and lethally intelligent campaign manager, and Cooper has several beautifully observed moments of Bushian bafflement and incomprehension. Miguel Ferrer shows acid-edged restraint in the role of an embittered and possibly delusional talk-show host, and James Gammon and Sal Lopez do nicely with the understated ambiguities in what would otherwise be stock crime-story roles. Kris Kristofferson plays a big-bucks entrepreneur as a scary combination of Biblical prophet and Texas patriarch.