Silver City (15)

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Chris Cooper will never be lost for a party-piece as long as his George W Bush impersonation remains this good - the sudden loss of concentration mid-sentence is particularly inspired - though one could have wished it had been used to better purpose. Sayles has spent a career ploughing an honourable anti-establishment furrow, and, occasionally, turned up some treasure doing so (Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star), but there is a heavy-handedness that weighs on Silver City right from the start.

The second thing Dickie does after mangling the TV speech is to reel in a corpse from the lake where he's fishing, prompting his chief handler, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), to launch an inquiry. If the names "Pilager" and "Raven" don't immediately suggest something predatory in the air then what follows certainly will.

Raven hires a rumpled private investigator, Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), to check on certain people he suspects of derailing Dickie's campaign, and thus launches one of those plots that would very much like to be described as "labyrinthine". In the course of his truffling Danny encounters all sorts, including a radical blogger (Tim Roth), a right-wing talk-show host (Miguel Ferrer), a smarmy political lobbyist (Billy Zane) and a journalist (Maria Bello) with whom Danny used to share revolutionary ideals, and a bed, back in the old days. "Americans don't have the patience for the underdog they used to," someone observes, which has allowed a fat cat like Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) to get his claws into real estate, and use the soon-to-be-governor Dickie Pilager as his puppet.

It transpires that Silver City itself is an abandoned mining town where ecological vandalism is being hushed up, or was being, until that corpse bobbed disobligingly into view. The talk of diverted water and real-estate corruption has dredged something else to the surface here, and it's the illustrious ghost of Polanski's Chinatown. While Colorado isn't quite California, the sunlit, open spaces refuse to disclose the conspiracy bubbling beneath, and the detective, if not the dapper figure that Jake Gittes cut, is another noble patsy, hoodwinked by what he thinks he sees. Nor will it escape your notice that the detective is played by the son of John Huston, whose malign presence cast such a shadow across Chinatown's plot.

How I wish that these resonances elevated Silver City, rather than merely adorned it. Sadly, the ominous elegance and design of Chinatown are a world away from Sayles's film, which seems to believe that lengthy exposition is the same thing as a gripping story; each plot-point is hammered home, with little sense of an overlapping structure. "We break it down and give it to him bite-size," it is said of Dickie's speech writers, but it's much the same as Sayles's approach, feeding the audience bite-sized chunks of plot instead of a continuous narrative flow. At best these are schematic, at worst galumphing: at one point an associate of Danny's goes to interview certain immigrant labourers but is warned off the land by a brutish jefe with a gun. The investigator walks away, muttering to himself, "They're hiding something". Well, gosh, thanks for the tip!

Danny, meanwhile, spends his sleepless nights scrawling details of the case on his apartment walls - we're told that such is the speed of his brainwork he hasn't got time to write it all on a notepad. But how can a plot moving this sluggishly outrun thoughts?

One or two characters make an impact. Daryl Hannah, as a disaffected scion of the Pilager clan, shows how dope-smoking and archery can make companionable bedfellows; her later spitefulness towards Danny feels somehow consistent with her self-loathing, and upholds the notion that politicians really do get the relatives they deserve. It's always good to see Kristofferson on screen, even if he's not quite convincing as a ruthless property tycoon; that face has been weathered by something, but it's not corruption. Amazingly, his phiz is only the second most lived-in of the movie. First prize goes to James Gammon, playing a sheriff, though facially impersonating a saddlebag that's just clocked up 3,000 hours of desert cattle-drives. I salute him, and his face. As for Huston, his debauched-cherub smile and emotional vagueness are never less than charming, though he, too, seems miscast as the ex-reporter who rediscovers his old radical fire. He has a scapegrace demeanour nobody seems to take quite seriously, including himself.

Silver City adopts a resigned view of America's political climate - the Dumb Dickies of this world have the muscle to win - but that's not why it feels so bleak. It's a dismal-looking film (unless the cinematographer Haskell Wexler intended it to look like the bottom of an old swimming-pool) and drably written, a storyboard in search of a drama. Sayles is entitled to feel gloomy about the Republicans. But this limp, liberal offering doesn't offer much hope for a thinking opposition.