The following is a review for the recent R1 Canadian release of Matewan. The film is currently a part of the John Sayles retrospective running around the country this Summer (as detailed in Cinema Gotham) An American release of the DVD is on the way, but the specs of that disc have not yet been released. In the meantime, this disc of Matewan is quite good.
The films of John Sayles have covered subject matter ranging from Irish fairy tales to Harlem sci-fi, southern border conflict to baseball corruption. His Matewan tells the story of the Coal Wars in West Virginia, which began over the fight to unionize dangerous coal mines. With the workers pitted against each other along ethnic and racial lines, the company that owns the mines and much of the local property holds tremendous power. When union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) comes to town he begins the slow, painful road towards uniting the workers against the true enemy - the greedy coal barons who put profits ahead of lives.
The struggle of employee against employer, particularly in the first decades of the last century, when technology started to grow by leaps and bounds, is the struggle that this country is based on. From children working in factories to endless work-days and fatal working conditions, the gap between the goals of manufacturing and the lives of the laborers was enormous for many years. The conditions in which the coal miners of Matewan work is unbearable (Just listen to the list of financial obligations that a coal miner must fulfill to the company before they can pocket any of their paycheck.) The introduction of unions to these high-risk industries was a volatile, yet crucial, mix. There is so much at stake for the characters that their pain becomes part of the film's fabric.
The trick that Sayles pulls off here is to make the situations seem utterly desperate without adding unnecessary melodrama. Working with an extremely strong cast (as usual), including Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, and David Strathairn, Sayles creates a tremendous number of memorably real characters. Cooper's Kenehan is an idealist with Communist-leaning motivations who truly believes that the only path towards independence is for the workers to unite. Jones' 'Few Clothes' Johnson is the powerful, experienced spokesman for the black replacements for the striking white miners. McDonnell's Elma Radnor is a tough, jaded woman tired of living this impossibly hard life. Will Oldham's Danny, Elma's son, in the strong youth who splits his time between working in the mines and combining baptist teachings and union optimism in his church sermons. Strathairn's Sid Hatfield is a lawman of few words but whose strength and seriousness informs his bravery. These characters - and all the rest of the large cast - are made up of details, contradictions, and convictions that make them completely believable. Even the two violent, corrupt representatives of the company, played by Gordon Clapp and Kevin Tighe, are frighteningly real underneath their dastardly villainy.
Sayles' extends his open, honest work with the characters to every other aspect of the film as well. The sets and costumes are utterly authentic. If ever there was a film that makes its long-gone setting real, it's this one. Haskell Wexler's cinematography alternates between harsh contrast and soft haze. His use of texture in lighting is amazing. Mason Daring's sparse, rootsy score is perfect. Sayles' script and the film's pacing are subtle and effective, with characters given time and room to breathe without launching into conflict constantly. When there is conflict it is an explosion of tensions and anger and it's all the more heart-breaking for the tense lulls in between.
Matewan is a film that Sayles tried to make for years. (In fact, another Sayles classic, The Brother From Another Planet, was written, produced, and released during a pause in preparation for Matewan.) With his career-long emphasis on the struggles of the down-and-out plus his love of history and storytelling, it's easy to see where his attraction to this story came from. For fans of socially-conscious or historical films, Matewan provides an engaging, dynamic experience that sheds some light on the struggles and battles that helped form the foundation of America.
The anamorphic widescreen video on this presentation is a definite step up from the previous release. Although there is a fair amount of dirt on the print and the image is a touch soft at times, overall the picture is fine. The sepia-toned costumes and sets look beautiful and the overall image is clear and appropriately dreary.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is a bit quiet at times, with some voices a little tough to make out. Given the modesty of the budget, however, it sounds fine.
A trailer for Matewan as well as a selection of trailers for other non-Sayles films.
Matewan, along with Paul Schrader's excellent Blue Collar, is the finest modern film on the struggle between workers and big business. Since the lives of the characters are already so desperate, and since they have been so effectively pitted against one another, their eventual outrage, finally directed at their oppressors, takes on an epic feel. Whether or not they are able to see past their anger and affect their situation in a positive way is part of the journey.