John Sayles’ interests and convictions have never come together as seamlessly as they do in Matewan, his engrossing—though occasionally heavy-handed—depiction of a 1920 West Virginia coal miners’ strike that ended in bloodshed. It’s about as unabashedly wobbly as American movies get, plotted like an old union ballad, each verse introducing characters and hardships in detail before returning to a simple refrain about how corporate power sets disenfranchised groups against each other. Even the title sounds like a rallying cry: “Matewan!”
Sayles’ movies—even the bad ones, of which there are many—have an underdog quality. They’re full of distinctive, but unspectacular, landscapes and hardworking actor’s actors; they emphasize local flavor and regional accents without ever making them seem exotic. His work is rooted in a deep appreciation for those parts of American culture and history that usually go overlooked. Sometimes, it gets the better of him, producing films that feel unfocused and dramatically undercooked; in Matewan, however, it lends his political sloganeering a sense of authenticity.
The film—designed in shades of moss, brown, and charcoal, and bathed in delicate, diffuse light by Haskell Wexler, whose camerawork earned an Oscar nomination—is rooted in the textures and rhythms of an earlier era; it’s easily the most visually expressive of Sayles’ features. But it is, above all, a movie driven by the speaking voice, whether it’s the whistly twang of Chris Cooper (in his screen debut), the urgent rumble of James Earl Jones, or the preternaturally confident sermonizing of a still-in-puberty Will Oldham, who plays the town’s teenage preacher. When it comes to credibility, pinpoint-specific accents and distinctly American turns of phrase can go a long way; moments like the one where IWW organizer Joe Kenehan (Cooper) berates the strikers for their hostility toward the black workers who’ve been hired to replace them—declaring, “Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddam club!”—ring with conviction.
Availability: Matewan is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, Amazon, or your local video store/library.