Matewan (1987)


By Scott Ross

Arguably the best American movie of the 1980s. John Sayles wrote, directed, appears in, and even (with Mason Daring) wrote the union folk songs for, this small but immensely powerful evocation of coal-mining troubles in the West Virginia of the 1920s.

Every scene, character, moment and performance is absolute and essential — there’s not a frame wasted nor a dramatic sequence dwelt on a fraction of a second longer than required. There haven’t been all that many serious fictional movies on labor issues made in the U.S., but this one ranks at the top of any list, however short, not least for Sayles limning the predatory way capitalism routinely pits workers, and races, against each other. Among its many pleasures are the performances of Chris Cooper, David Strathairn and James Earl Jones, the teenaged Will Oldham, and the wonderfully lived-in face of Mary McDonnel.

Matewan would make a fascinating double-bill with Norma Rae — made 50 years after the events depicted in Sayles’ movie and proving that the more things change…

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

3 thoughts on “Matewan (1987)

  1. Since you say MATEWAN is “arguably the best American movie of the 1980s” I will oblige by arguing. But first, a nit-pick… The movie I put forth is from 1980, so it is in a sense from the last year of the 1970s. Remember the whole “when is the millennium really?” controversy. So you could knock me out on a technicality.
    That said, I put forth as best American film of the decade with 198 at the start, HEAVEN’S GATE. I know this is not popular. It even once cost me a job. But it would eat up a lot of space to say why I regard it so highly. I just think it is so well done and gripping that it never fails to entrance me. Yeah, so some of the dialogue is unintelligible. I never let that bother me in any movie. And if I ever compile my Depressing Film Festival, this will be up there with Chinatown on the what-a-bummer scale… but who says movies need to be upbeat? I am sure you don’t. But so many people think a movie is bad if it is depressing. I think, in time, critical opinion will shift and HG will be more esteemed. Well, just plain esteemed. Anything can be “more” esteemed than this movie which was thrashed, trashed, and mashed. Hell, THE KREMLIN LETTER is now thought of as a masterpiece so anything is possible (I am crazy about that film too). As to HG having been an unconsciounable waste of money, I need only point out that its whole budget was LESS than the advertising budget on Beatty’s DICK TRACY.
    But I do recall thinking highly of MATEWAN and I will see it again. Thanks for this blog!

    • scottross79

      Thanks for the argument, Eliot! All such opinions as mine, above, are of course subjective. I suppose I feel so protective toward Matewan in part because, made for a million dollars, it went largely un-heralded and yet was so intelligent, impassioned, and said so much of pertinence, and is still largely unknown. I’m still un-tested on Heaven’s Gate, as I avoided it when it was released (like everyone else) and am a bit afraid of it still, as illogical as that sounds.

      Alas, in the post-’80 climate, all non-upbeat endings are considered beyond the Hollywood pale. I find it hilarious that so many out in La-La-Land still hold Chinatown up as a model, yet none of them would allow it to be made today, unless Jake ran off with Evelyn at the end (as Towne originally wanted and as Polanski, quite rightly, argued against.) The loss of money is relative; a hell of a lot more has been spent, and lost, since, on movies a whole lot more disposable; it was just that United Artists was so precariously balanced at the time it couldn’t absorb the loss of so much on a single film.

      Thanks again for the kind words, and the comments. I hope you know your input is always welcome, whether we agree or not.

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