Fishing for Truth

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Review of 'Silver City', director John Sayles

John Sayles is unique in American film. He's a leftist who has chosen to stay independent and go off limits to look at race, immigration, class and the state of the movement. Some of his most recent films are among his best. Lonestar and Sunshine State explore how life in America's South is still shaped by its brutal past. Where David Lynch hints at horror beneath the shiny surface of contemporary America, Sayles brings racism, corruption and the history of segregation into the full light of day.

Most US cinema is obsessed with the immediate or a fantasy future. To see characters struggle on screen with the legacy of a troubled past is a revelation. It makes you think afresh about the present. Sadly Sayles's new film, Silver City, never approaches this kind of subtlety. The cast which includes Richard Dreyfuss, Kris Kristofferson, Thora Birch and Tim Roth shows how much Sayles is respected in the industry, but isn't enough to pull the audience through.

The premise is worthy enough - a candidate for local governor in the Mid West is hit by scandal. A private detective is called in to investigate and gets pulled deeper and deeper into a web of corruption involving corporate lobbyists, environmental degradation and the abuse of migrant workers.

As usual with Sayles there are some great set pieces. The film starts on the shoot of a political ad with candidate Richard Pilager fishing in a beautiful lake. He's trying to show off his respect for nature. Instead of a fish Pilager hooks a cyanide-laced immigrant corpse and the PR men go ballistic. This is Sayles at his best - building characters out of offbeat scenarios.

But there are too few memorable moments and the story doesn't flow too well. Maybe it is difficult to do thrillers on a low budget: too much of the complicated plot is explained in clunky dialogue; too many of the characters are unlikely updates of film noir staples. Lead man Danny Huston, for example, plays a reluctant private detective who gave up on radical journalism after having too many stories spiked.

Compared to Sayles at his best the storyline grates. Somehow it's OK for the private dick in 1940s Hollywood films to single-handedly uncover networks of corruption and vice. It doesn't convince in a contemporary political thriller about immigrant labour and corporate power.

Silver City, was intended as a state of the nation study and it is to Sayles's credit that it was timed to come out in the US during last year's election. But where Sayles's recent films have found new ways to tell new kinds of stories, Silver City's thriller format seems forced. At a time when anti-corporate documentaries are big box office draws maybe it is unnecessary to wrap a political message in old clothes.