MATEWAN — CLASSIC FILM PICK
John Sayles's supurb period drama is set in the small '20s era West Virginia coal mining community of Matewan where UMWA (United Mine Workers Association) organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arrives with a group of black miners to organize a union along with Italian coal miners. Race relations are an organic part of the narrative. The drama takes on an epic quality for the layers of narrative depths that Sayles exposes with a gritty sense of realism.
Chris Cooper's odd-man-out character (Kenehan) captures our imagination in an unforgettable account of an authentic chapter torn from rarely addressed pages of American history. Joe Kenehan seeks to resolve the desperate situation without any violence that would attract interference from government powers. All will not go as planned.
An all-out war is brewing between the enslaved coal miners and the Stone Mountain Coal Company that owns them, body and soul. James Earl Jones gives a commanding performance as a black miner called "Few Clothes" who becomes an integral part of the story.
David Strathairn creates a distinctly un-stereotypical sheriff in the guise of Sid Hatfield, a man willing to stand up against the all-powerful coal company in spite of the many dangers involved in doing so. Still, Sid is powerless to protect 15-year-old Danny (Will Oldham), a young preacher and union activist caught between the violent factions taking sides.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler contributes significantly to the earthy look and grimy feel of a truly special cinematic achievement. Mason Daring underscores the harsh landscape with a beautiful Appalachian-inflected musical score.
Sayles himself steals a scene in a cameo performance as Hardshell, a fire-and-brimstone-spewing fundamentalist preacher whose furious sermon speaks to the town’s God-fearing people.
Sayles's meticulous script manifests the stark social influences of government, corporation, religion, race, and personal struggles pervading the Appalachian region of Mingo County at the time. The dedicated filmmaker gives as much attention to details surrounding the film’s essential supporting characters as he does to the leading players. Everywhere you look, subtext and theme combine. Women’s roles provide a key to the deceptively simple social structure that Sayles presents. The personal history of Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette), the town prostitute, is directly linked to an accident in the mines.
“Matewan’s” neo-realist design and delivery set it apart from anything that would ever come out of Hollywood. The picture stands as John Sayles’s greatest filmic achievement.
Rated PG-13. 135 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)