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Silver City (2004)

Vote early. Vote often.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 124 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

John Sayles debuted as an independent director/writer/editor in 1980 with 'Return of the Secaucus Seven', financed from money he had earned writing gently subversive screenplays for Roger Corman creature features like 'Piranha' (1978) and 'Alligator' (1980) – but just when you though it was safe to go back into the water, Sayles' fifteenth film 'Silver City' returns to his early scripts' concern with floating corpses and lurking subaquatic menaces, except that this time the politics are not kept beneath the surface, and it is only the film's satire that has a killer bite.

When Colorado Senator Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) reels in a human corpse while on a lakeside publicity shoot to promote his candidacy for the local governorship, his campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) smells a political conspiracy, and hires down-at-heel gumshoe Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), an ex-journalist, both to investigate, and to warn off, Pilager's three principal political enemies – “neofascist shockjock” Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), failed mining company whistleblower Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), and Pilager's “nympho nutcase sister” Maddy (Darryl Hannah). Following a crooked trail of unprincipled lobbyists, illegal migrant exploitation, police corruption, media manipulation, dodgy property deals, political scandal, environmental pollution and murderously watertight cover-ups, the cynical detective is destined to regain his former idealism but lose everything else.

In Sayles' searingly mordant allegory of the contemporary political landscape in America, there are no prizes for recognising that Dickie Pilager, with his wide-eyed populism, born-again faith, verbal witlessness and family connections, is a cypher for one George Bush Jr. At first glance Sayles seems to be offering a favorable portrait of his nation's President – for Danny finds it difficult to imagine that anyone might hold a grudge against Pilager, and even hard-nosed internet journalist Mitch Paine (Tim Roth) has to concede that “there's not a corrupt bone in Dickie Pilager's body”. This however turns out to be a backhanded compliment – for Pilager is an all too pliable facilitator for corrupt business interests, too stupid even to realise he is being manipulated. As Danny uncovers one buried secret after another, American history and the American dream are shown to have been (literally) littered with greed, lies and criminal plundering of the country's assets – and as Casey Lyle puts it, “some day the bill comes due”.

Named after a community development being planned for the area where the corpse surfaces, 'Silver City' is, like Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown', an unusual film noir set in bright sunlight rather than dark shadows. With its sharp dialogue, labyrinthine plotting and dizzying ensemble of well-delineated characters, 'Silver City' is a blackly comic vision of the winners and losers in Republican America – and even if there is something in the water, the results are a dry treat.

It's Got: Painfully witty dialogue; an extraordinary ensemble cast; labyrinthine plotting; a film noir framework; conspiracy and cover-ups; political satire that blows Michael Moore out of the water.

It Needs: Ideally (but now impossibly) to be viewed before George Bush Jrs campaign for Presidential reelection.


Film noir washes up against political satire, in this dizzying portrait of the American dream being sold down the river.