Who, exactly, is John Sayles making movies for these days? In Silver City, his dialogue is ''intelligent,'' yet it no longer sounds like human speech. The words dribble into a convoluted series of position papers-drily dense analyses of real estate deals and other local scams, all stuffed into the mouths of characters who sound more or less the same, since they're really just pawns in Sayles' diagram of the big picture. In the opening scene, Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), a bumbling, outdoorsy type who is running for governor of Colorado, is in the middle of shooting an I'm-just-a-good-ol'-boy-fisherman campaign commercial when he literally hooks into trouble; his lure catches a corpse floating in the water. Cooper does a riff on George W. Bush's more obvious mannerisms (the halting cadences, the way that he clings to certain pet phrases as if they were verbal life rafts). The movie's ad campaign has played up this lightweight performance as if the entire film were a thinly veiled presidential satire, but Pilager, it turns out, is just one of 18 characters woven into Sayles' latest seminar on corruption.
Silver City may be the mustiest political-conspiracy tale ever filmed; it's like Chinatown rewritten by Ralph Nader. Watching the performances of Richard Dreyfuss as Pilager's campaign manager, David Clennon as a development honcho, Miguel Ferrer as a talk-radio host, Michael Murphy as Pilager's father (is Sayles kidding? Murphy looks every bit as young as Cooper!), and Daryl Hannah as his hostile sister, the movie begins to feel claustrophobic in its sour cynicism. Politics is corrupt; media is corrupt; land deals are corrupt; the big guy keeps crushing the little guy. You can believe all of that and still think there's something covertly self-justifying in Sayles' method. He comes on as the Last Honest Filmmaker, but by now he may also be the dullest.