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For, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Independent filmmaker John Sayles has a number of fine films to his credit but he’s slowed up now that he’s pushing 70. He hasn’t directed a picture since 2013 and hasn’t had a ‘wide’ theatrical release in about 15 years. That’s a real shame, given how good many of his films are — ‘Lone Star,’ ‘Limbo,’ ‘Passion Fish,’ ‘Eight Men Out,’ ‘Return of the Secaucus Seven’ and this one, which has just earned a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion Collection. My review was published on Feb. 24, 1988, in the Deseret News.

John Sayles is a unique filmmaker and probably the best example of an “independent” working today. He makes his films with low budgets, uses largely unknown actors and tells stories that interest him personally.

Yet he does so in an appealing manner, telling interesting narrative yarns generously laced with humor; and though he’s not above offering a message, he does so subtly. The result is that his films, which include “Return of the Secaucus Seven” and “Brother from Another Planet,” are seen by a larger audience than most independent filmmakers’ works.

Sayles supplements his income and helps finance his own movies by directing videos (he’s done three for Bruce Springsteen), writing books, and by working as a Hollywood screenwriter (“The Howling,” the acclaimed TV-movie “Unnatural Causes”).

“Matewan,” Sayles’ latest personal film, is based on a true story, the war between West Virginia coal miners, united with strikebreakers to form a union, and the mine owners, which led to a bloodbath in the streets of Matewan in 1921.


       Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, 'Matewan'

Sayles builds his story largely from the point of view of Danny (Will Oldham), a teenager who has been a mineworker himself and who also doubles as a young preacher at the local “hard-shell” Baptist church. He befriends the union organizer, Joe (Chris Cooper), who is sent by the union to unite the miners in their efforts to go up against the company.

Joe advocates a non-violent approach, though the rough-hewn coalminers, whose families are suffering from the oppression of the mine-owners, are getting ready for blood.

As the film progresses we see the black and Italian strikebreakers at first an object of scorn and violence, but then gradually joining the miners’ ranks to go up against the company.

The company provides the film’s villains, who go up against the law and the townsfolk, and eventually wind up in the streets in a “High Noon” showdown, or perhaps more correctly, one that borrows from “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”


Both Sayles’ strengths and weaknesses are in full evidence here. There’s the excellent dialogue that is a Sayles trademark, conversations that seem real and pointed, and which seem to come from life. There are the fully developed, three-dimensional characters working as an ensemble, so many of them that it’s impossible to highlight all worthy contenders. And in this instance Sayles also has the benefit of Haskell Wexler’s gorgeous cinematography and Mason Daring’s evocative music.

But there are also the old-movie clichés that occasionally get in the way, and Sayles’ villains have never been so one-dimensional or completely despicable as they are here.

Those distractions aside, however, “Matewan” still manages to pack an awfully powerful punch drawing up portraits of distressed families in crisis.

Cooper is a superb lead player, underplaying his role nicely in a moving, low-key manner. Other standouts include James Earl Jones as “Few Clothes,” leader of the black contingent; Will Oldham as the young preacher-miner; and Nancy Mette as Bridey Mae, the lonely young widow who meets each train that pulls into town hoping it might be bringing her someone to love.

Sayles’ “Matewan” is loaded with unforgettable images and wonderful characters and ranks with his best work. It is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and profanity.