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'Silver City': Leaden Satire

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page WE45

"SILVER CITY" IS ONE of those movies that's supposed to be good for the soul. The political soul, that is. Its premise? That all (or certainly most) evil flows directly from the headwaters of American conservative capitalism or, put another way, big business.

Whether that's right, wrong or somewhere in between has nothing to do with the movie's problems. Writer-director John Sayles's quasi-political satire is meant to be deceptively lighthearted and rich in moral dimension. But its implications are so ploddingly obvious, you'll swear you wandered into a dank lecture room where today's topic is The Way the System Works.


Chris Cooper in "Silver City," John Sayles's political satire that's too blatant with the former and too graceless with the latter. (Bob Marshak -- Newmarket Films)

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A right-wing gubernatorial candidate (Chris Cooper), whose name is Richard "Dickie" Pilager, is in a bind. Posing for an environmental TV spot, in which he's supposed to fish Colorado's clean waters, he hooks a dead human body. Campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) immediately goes into reactive mode. He suspects foul play and decides to put out the word to his boss's enemies that they're being tagged and watched.

The man for the job? Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), an eccentric, down-on-himself private detective who used to be a journalist (i.e., used to have moral integrity). Danny's list of immediate suspects includes crazy talk show host Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); environmentally conscious Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who butted heads with Dickie's senator-father (Michael Murphy); and Dickie's druggie sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah), an archer who loves to shoot arrows at pictures of her brother.

Danny will try to find the worm, or worms, that did this; but not before he digs up all the good ol' boys, dastardly financiers, union-busters, illegal-immigrant-peddlers and other hissable scum who make up Dickie's corrupt world. Danny's investigation leads back to that "clean" water and the predictable conceit that the "New West" that Dickie and company paint so evocatively is still part of an Old Way.

As for Dickie, he's a bumbler with the English language. He's a born-again Christian, too, the son of a political dynasty. He can hardly convey a complete thought. He's a goofball captured by special interests. Hmmm. You could suffer internal hemorrhaging from the elbow nudging at work here.

Sayles has made his share of engaging movies, including "Lone Star" and the recent "Sunshine State," which managed to intermix social commentary with an engaging story. But "Silver City," whose oversized cast includes Maria Bello, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth and Billy Zane, comes across as bad Robert Altman. It tries unsuccessfully to make a wry gumshoe noir out of an overarching, cross-sectional political diagram. And it's a painfully forced affair, full of direct, on-the-nose dialogue and unamusing shtick from Cooper as the cloddish Dickie; Dreyfuss playing the neurotic, calculating Chuck; Hannah as the drug-addled, nympho eccentric; and Huston as gonzo-bonzo investigator. Like the body that finds itself attached to Dickie's fishing line, it's a sinker.

SILVER CITY (R, 124 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and drug content. Area theaters.


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