a film written and directed by John Sayles
The new film from independent filmmaker John Sayles is provocative and interesting, but, unfortunately, well below the level of his best work. As one who got his start as a short-story writer, it seems that Sayles ought to understand the limitations of his medium and work with them - and his past films indicate that he can do so. But most recent films, Casa de los Babys and Silver City both suffer from a lack of that sharp focus required to tell a compelling story in about two hours.
Sayles reports that the current film was provoked by the condition of the political process as he watched it unfold in 2000 - while he was in Florida shooting Sunshine State. There, Sayles saw the election debacle play out, with its unprecedented partisan meddling in the voting and vote-counting process and the active involvement in an administrative role of people who should have recused themselves because of their ties to one candidate, Sayles was inspired to try to make a film that would expose what he saw as political shenanigans and inspire audiences to demand better.
First, he had to finish Casa de los Babys, which was already in production. Although Sayles is a prolific artist - he has had seven films released in the last ten years, and directed a total of 15 movies since 1980's Return of the Secaucus 7 - it may be the pressure of overlapping production schedules (as well as the credited and uncredited screenwriting he does for Hollywood to pay his bills) is interfering with the clarity of his creative process.
Whatever the reason, the two most recent films share a broad-brush approach to the story-telling and an attempt to consider many issues within the context of a two hour film that undermine their effectiveness. Add to that the stringent shooting schedules imposed by the fact that Sayles' films are mostly self-funded, low-budget productions (Silver City was filmed in six weeks for under 5 million dollars), and you have a situation replete with potential obstacles to making a successful film.
Casa de los Babys was an ensemble film about a group of six very different American women who meet in a boarding house in an unidentified Latin American - Country, where they have come to satisfy residency requirements that will allow them to adopt local children. While the performances were strong and the issues raised were evocative, the attempt to cover six distinct stories gave each story less than 20 minutes of screen time.
With deductions of time for introductory and expository material to set the scene and connect the stories, each story actually received somewhat less attention than even this, and as a result, the emotional connection with the stories was tenuous, with the actors given little time to create complex characters and work out the multi-faceted motivations, reservations, fears and personality traits that had led them to be where they were.
The result was a movie that was disjointed and superficial, where some characters were sketched in so quickly that they threatened to become stereotypes, or at any rate, didn't have the time to show themselves in any real depth. As a result, the issues raised - including the exploitation of poor countries by richer ones (and of the rich foreigners by poor countries), and the ethics of adopting children out of their birth culture to families that are very different - became abstractions rather than the poignant, compelling emotional issues they might have been.
Silver City shares this flaw. What Sayles seems to be reaching towards here is a gestalt of personal compromise, societal apathy, corporate malfeasance, bureaucratic pettiness and political corruption presented in the somewhat mosaic style of which Robert Altman is the acknowledged master. What he gets is a film that vacillates between being a political satire, a love story, a murder mystery and an expos. The audience - and the actors, to judge by their distracted and fragmented performances - are left uncertain as to what they are supposed to be watching, how they are supposed to be taking what is presented.
The story follows several intertwined lines. In one, the none-too-bright scion of a Colorado political dynasty, Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) is being promoted into the Governor's office by his father, Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) and his political cronies, led by billionaire businessman Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) and cut-throat political-operative Chuck Raven (Richard Dryfuss).
Pilager's political ineptness, verbal blunders and flag-waving, religious-allusion-filled TV commercials are a clear satirical reference to the Bush Administration, with Cooper delivering what amounts to a pretty effective caricature of George W. as a good-old, good-time boy out of his depth, manipulated by those behind the scenes. But this satirical aspect of the film never develops into a pointed critique and in fact much of the humor has already been done to death. It ends more or less where it starts, with broad ridicule of the hypocrisy and venality of politicians of Bush's ilk - a rather easy target, and hence not a particularly effective commentary.
A second line follows failed journalist turned private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), who is hired by Raven to investigate the discovery of the corpse that turns up to disrupt the shooting of one of Pilager's commercials. This line delves into corporate greed and irresponsibility, the exploitation of illegal alien laborers and suppression of information by collusion between corrupt government officials and corporate media. Again, however, it comes to something of a dead end, with no new insight into this phenomenon and not enough time to develop it as a theme to the point of making a compelling condemnation of it.
Meanwhile, O'Brien has a history as an investigative journalist set-up and discredited by the corporate wrong-doers he was trying to expose, at the cost of his job and his relationship with fellow-reporter Nora Allerdyce (Maria Bello). Nora, meanwhile, is engaged to be married to handsome but shallow and amoral political operative Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane) - and that triangle of relationships creates a third line - that of a more traditional "love-story." But the limited development of the characters makes this branch seem strained and contrived.
A fourth line revolves around the attempts of Mort Seymour (David Clennon) to get his condo project built on land purchased from tycoon Benteen that contains vast quantities of polluted mine tailings from Benteen's industrial operations. I just happens that Seymour is also the husband of Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) who runs the detective agency for which O'Brien works.
If all of this seems a little confusing and labored - a little like a soap-opera - well, frankly, it is. And there is more: the origin and fate of the illegal alien whose body starts the film rolling; the involvement of County Sheriff Joe Skaggs (Joe Gammon) whose brother was instrumental in the plot to take down O'Brien in his former job; O'Brien's former editor Mitch Paine (Tim Roth) - who lost his job as a result of the set-up as well - now running an underground news web-site; Senator Pilager's black-sheep daughter Maddy (Darryl Hannah) who becomes more than an investigative subject for O'Brien.
It is just too much to fit into the constraints of a small independent film on a tight budget. In spite of Sayles & Company's considerable talent and professionalism, the whole film - from the technical aspects, to the acting, to the continuity and coherence of the script - creaks and groans under the strain of it all.
To take just one example, Sayles has assembled a talented, interesting ensemble of actors, but in spite of their proven talent, many of the performances here seem wooden and artificial - quite likely the product of too little rehearsal time and too few opportunities to patiently shoot and re-shoot scenes until the desired level of intensity is achieved. This also leads to an un-evenness in the tone of the film, with some sequences coming across as relatively highly-polished and effective, and others seeming by contrast artificial and almost amateurish.
The cast struggles bravely. Actors like Dryfuss, Place, Kristofferson, Cooper, Zane, Roth and Hannah are established professionals. They do a workmanlike job with the material they are given, but they don't seem to have a very deep and convincing notion of who their characters are and where they want to go. While some individual scenes are infused with convincing intensity, there is an emotional discontinuity to the performances.
Less-experienced actors like Bello and Huston still manage to carry their weight effectively in general. But there is just too much un-evenness in both the script - which veers from comic one-liners to melodramatic pronouncements in the twinkling of an eye - and the plot - which requires a great deal of the actors without giving them room to develop fully-fleshed-out characters - for their performances to take root and provide an engaging anchor for the convoluted story-line. Huston particularly - an indie character-actor taking a pivotal role in a film filled with big-name talent - seems painfully unsure of himself.
The production values are generally high (but here again there is a certain disconcerting un-evenness) compared to most independent films. Sayles has established a network of highly-professional technicians who work with him regularly and they do their jobs well here. Veteran (and Academy Award-winning) Cinematographer Haskell Wexler shows verve and imagination here using camera angle, framing and movement to emphasize and underscore the relationships between those on screen or add a contrapuntal accent to the action.
The original music, by long-time Sayles collaborator, folk-musician Mason Daring, is low-key and well-synchronized to the action, providing both impetus and subtle segues between some of the more disjointed transitions in the narrative. The found music leans heavily on obscure pop and ethnic music - much easier and cheaper to secure rights to than Top Forty Hits - but as always, Sayles manages to find great tunes and use them to very good effect.
There is a lot to like in this film - particularly if you feel sympathetic to a broad critique of "politics as usual" as it is being practiced in the first decade of the 21st Century. But in spite of strong efforts and a wealth of talent, the film ends up feeling like it is an awful lot less than it might have been, or than it ought to have been had Sayles been in full, confidant stride.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z