Silver City

(2004) *** R
124 min. Newmarket Films. Director: John Sayles. Cast: Chris Cooper, Danny Huston, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Murphy, Daryl Hannah.

With Silver City, writer-director-editor John Sayles has whipped up a pastiche of Chinatown and the deeply sarcastic ensemble satires of Robert Altman (Tanner '88). Tracking the corrupt back-door politics of the fictional Pilager family, Sayles has his way with both George Bushes. Michael Murphy (Altman's "Tanner") plays Senator Jud Pilager, now coaching his son Dickie (Chris Cooper) in a first-time bid for public office. Dickie wants to be governor of Colorado, but first he must disassociate himself from a developing scandal. The family name implies that the Pilagers are buccaneers; when bodies begin to float to the surface during photo ops, Dickie begins to look more and more like what he is: a toxic leader.

Cooper's English-mangling version of George W. is a certified hoot, but the election is no laughing matter. Dickie's campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires disgraced ex-reporter Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston of ivansxtc) to privately investigate the untimely appearance of a cyanide-laced corpse during a Pilager-campaign TV shoot; Sayles opens the film here, depicting the world of politics as an illusive show barely masking mortal exploitation. Dismissed by some as "just another Juan Doe," the disposable victim represents a threat to back-scratching real-estate deals; Kris Kristofferson plays Wes Benteen, the tycoon promoting privatization of the few remaining untapped resources ("We'll make a cowboy out of you yet...").

Sayles's large and illustrious ensemble includes Billy Zane, Tim Roth, Mary Kay Place, David Clennon, Miguel Ferrer, Ralph Waite, Sal Lopez, and James Gammon. Maria Bello plays a frustrated journalist making up her mind about Danny, who'd like to restart their romance; rare people who care in a careless culture, they're bonded whether they like it or not. Daryl Hannah plays the black sheep of the Pilager clan, boning up on her archery in anticipation of the Olympics and determined to make mischief for anyone who enters her sights. Even while skewering political operators, Sayles needily seeks out heart, humor, and the endangered beauty of the American landscape. With producer Maggie Renzi, he's still (if predictably) sounding the alarm for the upstanding underdogs: shamefully disposable illegals and journalists who aren't yellow. As Benteen puts it, America likes a winner; in Silver City, to the winner go the spoils.

[For Groucho's interview with John Sayles & Maggie Renzi, click here.]

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