Criterion Prediction #7: Matewan, by Alexander Miller
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Chris Cooper, James Earl-Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Will Oldham, John Sayles
Synopsis: In the 1920s coal mining town of Matewan, West Virginia, UMWA (Union Mine Workers of America) organizer Kenehan (Cooper) arrives in the midst of a work stoppage. The Baldwin-Felts mining company have dispatched migrant workers and gun thugs to break the strike, and Kenehan with the help of some bold locals, (including Strathairn in a standout performance as the town’s sheriff) unite by joining the union to squaring off against the duplicitous mining company. American history brought to life by John Sayles is honest, faithful, and doesn’t shy from our country’s historical blemishes while simultaneously side-stepping sanctimonious speechifying for constructing a formal storyline. This seemingly straightforward good vs. evil tale is indicative of Sayles’ filmography as his complex and diverse narrative dimensions are legible without the crutch of exposition or formulaic bricklaying.
Critique: American history by John Sayles might be more authentic than most fact-inspired historical feature films. As a jack of all trades, Sayles has carved a unique niche for himself in American cinema as a self-stylized screenwriter, director, editor, producer, and actor who usually writes himself into his films, his small role in Matewan as a union condemning preacher is amusing to say the least. His cross-dimensional talents have yielded some great films over the years (Passion Fish, City of Hope, Lianna) but Matewan might be his crowning achievement and possibly a near perfect film. Matewan bears the brand of a western (revisionist in a way) but Sayles deconstructs genres, not by means of contention but a reflexive impulse for historical authenticity in place of traditional heroism or theatrical presumption. While his work is that of a modernist, Matewan is rife with the folkloric texture that proves the director’s capability to volley the mythic and pragmatic sensibilities we’d think would be at odds in a film such as this. The strength of this movie isn’t just the product of impressive direction and screenwriting, but the cast who brings the script to life. Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Gordon Clapp, and a young Will Oldham lend incredible performances that not only showcase their talent but show us that they’re working with an actor’s director.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: John Sayles is one of the most important modern American filmmakers and yet his name is nowhere in the Criterion catalog. In recent years, it seems like the Criterion Collection has grown more comfortable with the western genre when you see the influx of Monte Hellman and John Ford titles, so Matewan would be a fitting direction for Criterion to go in. If Criterion decides to introduce John Sayles into the collection, Matewan would a great introduction for newcomers to his body of work as the film is an accessible title and emblematic of the director’s body of work.
Furthermore, the availability of the movie on home video is restricted to the bare bones Artisan DVD. The picture looks decent but we should be able to see a film this good it in its best form, which is something we expect from a Criterion release. Despite its critical acclaim, Matewan isn’t as well known as it should be. Sayles does indeed have a following, but empirical research dictates that following would increase as we’ve seen many directors experience a renaissance in the wake of their films receiving the Criterion treatment. Sayles, is also a somewhat outspoken director whose insights on filmmaking would make for some interesting (to say the least) bonus features.
The film is a topic in the Criterion forums; maybe that’ll put a bug in their ear? Let’s hope so.