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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 15.79%
Average: 5.26%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 5.26%

1 review, 13 user ratings

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by Elaine Perrone

"Like watching poetry!"
5 stars

Happily continuing what has become, for me, a mini John Sayles retrospective, I settled in with a treasured old friend, Matewan, Sayles's absorbing and exquisitely rendered recreation of the battles fought to bring the union to a coal mining town in 1920s West Virginia.

Matewan follows the vintage Sayles formula, depicting a large canvas of multi-generational, multi-cultural characters, most of whom are just basic, decent people struggling to make their way through lives compromised by their circumstances, diminished expectations, and the corruption going on around them.

In this case, the villains are the mining company's hired guns Hickey and Griggs (Sayles regulars Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp), and spy C.E. Lively (that always reliable snake-in-the-grass, Bob Gunton). The everymen/everywomen are the miners themselves, their wives, widows, and children (a large, and excellent, cast of Sayles regulars and semi-regulars, with standout performances by Mary McDonnell as Elma Radnor, the woman who runs the town's boarding house; David Strathairn as Police Chief Sid Hatfield; James Earl Jones as "Few Clothes" Johnson, leader of the Black scabs who are brought in to replace the striking local miners; and Will Oldham as Danny Radnor, Elma son, who is also one of the West Virginia miners and the town's softshell Baptist preacher).

Sayles himself has a cameo as Matewan's fire-and-brimstone hardshell Baptist preacher, and his long-time companion, Maggie Renzi, has a lovely supporting role as Rosaria, the wife of Fausto (Joe Grifasi), the leader of the Italian scabs, who, with their families, reside uneasily beside the displaced West Virginians.

One of my favorite "small" scenes, a knockout, features Renzi and Jo Henderson as Mrs. Elkins, mother of miner Hillard Elkins (Jace Alexander). In an environment in which the Italian, Blacks, and displaced Western Virginian families must stifle their animosities and share a camp, Mrs. Elkins offers Rosaria some bulbs for cooking, with the explanation that they are called "ramps." Not understanding a word of what has been said to her, Rosaria nonetheless conveys her perfect comprehension by taking the bulbs, breathing in their aroma, and murmuring, "E aglio" (it's garlic).

The heart and soul of Matewan is the quietly brilliant Chris Cooper, as Joe Kenehan, the union organizer who comes to aid the townspeople in their struggles against the injustices heaped upon them by the Stone Mountain Coal Company.

With its crackling good story, memorable performances, and the stunning cinematography of Sayles' frequent collaborator, Haskell Wexler, this astonishing little gem, for me, is, and always will be, like watching poetry: A MASTERPIECE.

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originally posted: 08/02/04 13:18:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2004 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/06/09 Russ Josephson Terrific movie esp. for U.S. history students. "Joe Hill" great but not available. 5 stars
10/01/06 T. howard who was few clothes johnson 4 stars
5/02/06 liz this movie was so boring....they really need to rethink their movie plot 1 stars
9/30/05 George not bad....but not outstanding 3 stars
9/21/04 Kyle Stevens The Film Made Me Masturbate like i was watching barney 5 stars
9/13/04 wovengold Completely engrossing; the tragedy of ordinary people just trying to live. 5 stars
4/07/04 Joe Godfrey Best of all the movies about the American labor struggle. One of my 10 favorite movies. 5 stars
2/01/04 Michael underrated Political film 5 stars
9/17/03 Robert L. Gaylor, Ph.D. A llok at the price paid for organizing a union. 5 stars
9/10/02 ArizonaNed Loved this movie!!! 5 stars
2/21/02 B. Alexander A great film but how could they chop it up and format fit it????? 4 stars
1/11/01 Walter One of the top 10 movies ever made. I've seen it about five times, and it still grabs me. 5 stars
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  02-Jun-1987 (PG-13)



Directed by
  John Sayles

Written by
  John Sayles

  Chris Cooper
  James Earl Jones
  David Strathairn
  Mary McDonnell
  Will Oldham
  John Sayles

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