Monday, January 9, 2012
1987's MATEWAN is one of his finest. Gritty, straightforward, honest, all of the qualities you could use to describe a Sayles work. MATEWAN details the struggles of a small town in West Virginia in 1920. Coal mining drives the local economy; its workers are all but owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The workers are poorly treated, their hours are punishingly long, and their wages garnished bit by bit for work necessities like uniforms. A general store in town, also owned by the Company, continues to raise its prices. Even worse, the Company owns all the land and houses in Matewan.
The men are a dime a dozen in the eyes of the Company. When the workers threaten to form unions (lead by organizer Joe Kenahan, played by Chris Cooper), Stone Mountain imports a trainload of "scabs", African-American non-union workers from Alabama and immigrants from overseas. They are treated like dirt by both the Company and the mine workers whose jobs they may take. Tensions among the townspeople boil over not only against Stone Mountain, who sends two reps to try to maintain order, but against each other. There will be turncoat traitors, false accusations, discussions of being "red", and even some dueling pulpit preaching before the storm settles.
MATEWAN patiently retells this tragic chapter in American history in a manner that might be termed "novelistic". Each scene carefully develops the story, the characters therein. Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, Sayles film regulars, excel in their respective roles as Elam Radnor (who runs a boarding house at which Kenahan stays) and Sid Hatfield, Matewan's police chief who bravely stares down Company thugs. Even the smallest roles are given weight by Sayles; few actors with speaking parts are merely anonymous extras on the margins of the frame. The later events in this story are powerful not only because of the inherent drama, but also because we've gotten to know people like Bridey Mae Tolliver (Nancy Mette),"Few Clothes" Johnson (James Earl Jones) and even Sayles himself, who plays a "hardshell", anti-union Baptist preacher. What is remarkable is that these characters don't necessarily have a lot of screen time. It is a credit to Sayles' lean approach that we learn everything we need to know about them and their significance to the story without extraneous scenes. There isn't a wasted line.
That is not to say that MATEWAN isn't stylish. Haskell Wexler's photography can be admired for a certain sooty beauty, utterly real. Bad cinematography can completely remove a viewer from the world the filmmakers are trying to portray; Wexler again demonstrates why he is one of the best of his craft. Sayles' direction is also beautiful, beautifully austere. He's controlled yet relaxed, never dictating our emotions but letting the events speak for themselves. I did not learn about the town of Matewan in history books. This film fills in that huge gap. Its discussions of union versus corporation are as relevant as ever. MATEWAN is a small treasure that deserves (re)discovery.