Silver City Review

Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), candidate for local governor in Colorado, is shooting a TV commercial by a lake. He casts a fishing line – and hooks the corpse of a dead Mexican man. Pilager’s campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a busted journalist turned private investigator, to see if anyone has a grudge against his candidate. But Danny’s investigations open up a large can of worms…

In 2004, I reviewed John Sayles’s 1999 film Limbo for this site. There was a sense then that Sayles, despite being a standard-bearer for American independent films for a quarter of a century, was going out of fashion, at least in the UK. At least Silver City had distribution here, unlike its immediate predecessor La casa de los Babys. But the critical reception to Silver City tended to bear out a sense that Sayles’s films are undoubtedly worthy and Good For You, but just not very exciting. Also, many reviews didn’t get further than the political satire in the film, made in the year of an American election. This is an important part of the film, with Chris Cooper clearly and intentionally channelling George W. Bush in his role, but it isn’t the whole of it.

Herewith the case for the defence. Sayles was originally a writer, and his films are ultimately writer’s films. To reuse a definition I’ve used elsewhere, Sayles is a writer-who-directs: his direction, though certainly very competent, is not on the level of his writing. In the main, his directing tends towards the self-effacing, privileging the writing and the acting over directorial flashiness. That doesn’t mean his work lacks style, and anyone who thinks Sayles’s work is predictable and without surprises need go no further than Limbo. Silver City isn’t on the same level, but its pleasures and rewards make it well worth a look.

Silver City is a curious film, where the political satire gives way to a thriller of conspiracy and cover-up, with several nods to Chinatown. It’s also another of Sayles’s large-scale ensemble pieces which isn’t so much slow-paced as leisurely, as Sayles allows time to establish individual characters. However, there are certainly lapses in pace, mostly around the mid-section of the film. This use of the large canvas and the multiplicity of character, notable in Sayles’s work from City of Hope onwards, owes a lot to the influence of Robert Altman, but Sayles has a far more generous sensibility: even the villains in his work have shades to their personality and reasons for what they do. And Sayles’s great strength is dialogue: listening to his characters talk is one of the richest pleasures of his work.

Ultimately this film doesn’t quite come off, and that’s a structural fault: the various parts don’t work together and in fact conflict. However, the large cast turn in fine performances and Sayles’s eye for character, society and place is as acute as ever, aided immensely by Haskell Wexler’s fine cinematography.

Tartan’s DVD is not actually Region 0 as it says on the packaging, but is in fact encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, opening up from the original ratio of 1.85:1. The film was shot in Super 16mm for budgetary reasons, and the results look very good: There’s a little more grain than you would see with a 35mm feature, and the colours look a little more vibrant and less slick and sharp, and shadow detail is a little lacking in parts. But this is more than acceptable.

The soundtrack comes with Tartan’s usual three options: analogue Dolby Surround and 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS. The latter are the options of choice, with a good few directional effects as well as rendering the dialogue with great clarity. The DTS track has the slight edge for clarity over the Dolby Digital option, but there's very little in it. The subwoofer doesn’t see much action, though it does come into play during the Steve Earle track that plays over the end credits. Subtitles are available for the feature only, not on the extras. Some brief exchanges in Spanish have fixed English subtitles.

The packaging – or at least the cover slick that came with the review checkdisc – is misleading about the number of extras available. The “director’s commentary” is in fact a director and producer chat, with Sayles joined by his longtime producer (and partner in life as well as in film) Maggie Renzi. This is an informative talk, with both Sayles and Renzi illuminating about the challenges of making such a large-scale story on a very small budget ($5 million), which Sayles and Renzi financed themselves.

Next up is a making-of documentary, which incorporates the “Sayles interview” and “director and producer interview” promised on the packaging, as both Sayles and Renzi feature in it, along with key technical personnel and cast members. This featurette is presented in 1.78:1 non-anamorphic, but it shows signs of being intended for 4:3 – some shots look unduly cropped and on-screen captions aren’t 16:9-friendly.

The remaining extras are an interview with Danny Huston, which is in standard EPK format, with Huston answering questions that appear as on-screen text, and the theatrical trailer. Film notes do not appear on the disc itself but may do in a booklet which was not supplied for review. All in all, that’s not quite so many extras as promised on the packaging, but plenty to be going on with, and more than on most Tartan discs.

Silver City will probably not go down as one of John Sayles’s finest works, but there’s plenty to be going on with, even when the particular circumstances of its inspiration have passed into history. Tartan’s DVD presents the film very well.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:12:31

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