Criterion Review: MATEWAN

Sayles’ 1987 union drama finally gets the home video release it deserves

Perhaps it’s fitting that the first John Sayles title to be part of Criterion Collection is a film that was nigh impossible to watch for decades. Sure, Matewan was previously available on DVD, but the quality of that release was far below the director’s intention and vision (see my complaint in this 2013 article). The new BluRay includes a 4K digital restoration, supervised by the director.

A dramatization of historical events, the 1987 film depicts West Virginia miners in Mingo County forming a union in a strike against unfair working conditions and low wages. Chris Cooper, in his film debut, plays union organizer Joe, an outsider who tries his hardest to keep the miners from resorting to violence. The ensemble drama also stars Mary McDonnell as a widow running a rooming house, James Earl Jones as a worker the mine-owners brought in, David Straithairn as Sid Hatfield, and Will Oldham as a young miner.

Cooper’s Joe is earnest in his hopes of bringing the men into the union, although as an outsider, some of the miners are easily swayed against him. Shop-owner C.E. Lively (Bob Gunton, The Shawshank Redemption) tries to play both sides as the mine-owners bring in gunmen from the Baldwin-Felts Agency. The shoot-out at the end between the miners and these gunmen seems inevitable; such dramatic tension has built up that even if you are unfamiliar with the story of the Matewan Massacre, you know things are not going to end well.

Haskell Wexler’s cinematography work here is only one of the many wonders of Matewan. It boasts the look and cast of a higher-budget film, but the actors all worked for union wages. The screenplay by Sayles incorporates religious allegory; Danny (Oldham) has a skill for preaching and is able to send messages to the miners in his congregation through a story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Played against these scenes of sermonizing, we see Few Clothes (Jones) and Joe in a situation that brings to mind Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of Isaac. It rings true for this period in which rural families might not have many options for reading, but would have known their Bible passages.

Matewan indelibly captures this moment in the past, as Sayles reminds us of the sacrifice these workers underwent. Through the matter-of-factness and a lack of romanticism in the script, a cast brimming with talent, the attention to detail in the production design, and the beautiful camerawork from Wexler, Matewan is a masterwork.

Included on the Criterion BluRay release of Matewan:

  • Union Dues: Sayles, producer/actress Maggie Renzi, and others remember the shooting of the film. Topics include: Wexler’s cinematography style, the look and feel of the film, the research into the massacre, and the location decision.
  • Sacred Words: Renzi, Sayles’ partner in life and production, says, “Good writing is underrated.” Performers such as McDonnell & Cooper recall how they came to be involved in Sayles’ film.
  • Music of Matewan: Composer Mason Daring discusses his longtime collaboration with Sayles, getting to work with singer Hazel Dickens on this project, and writing original songs for the film
  • 2004 short doc, Them That Work, about the importance of Matewan to the West Virginia film community
  • original theatrical trailer
  • commentary from Sayles and Wexler, recorded in 2013
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