Going Deep
Jeannette Catsoulis on Matewan

For 26 years now, John Sayles has been making movies about an America largely ignored by our corporate film industry, giving voice to communities and issues too complex—and too unsexy—for Hollywood’s ADD-afflicted greenlighters. And at a time when stories about real work (as opposed to spying or wedding planning) are almost completely absent from our multiplexes, Sayles continues to insist our humanity can be determined by the way we labor. His sensibility is unfashionably populist, but his preference for dialogue over action, actors over stars, and sophisticated plots over easy-access formulas may have distanced him from the very audiences he strives to represent.

Though invariably praised for the intelligence of his writing, Sayles is rarely singled out for visual flair. His integrity and earnestness have caused many commentators to label his movies worthy but dull, lacking both esthetic daring and technical pizzazz. Sayles’s words can be inspirational, but his images too often just sit there, inert, on the screen (the apotheosis being 2004’s Silver City, a drab and wearisome parade of expository conversations). Dazzled by his often brilliant screenplays and uncommonly nuanced stories, it’s easy to miss Lone Star’s lack of energy or Sunshine States flatness and anemic design. All of which leads critic David Thomson, among others, to suspect that Sayles is a far more natural novelist than filmmaker.

Maybe so; but what’s intriguing about Sayles is that when he frees himself from social responsibility his films take flight. The rapturous visuals of The Secret of Roan Inish and Limbo—romantic, mysterious films about love and family and belief in the impossible—are the work of a man more intent on seduction than persuasion. In both, humans and their problems are dwarfed by the natural—and, in the case of Roan Inish, the supernatural—world, which, as the stories unfold, exerts an increasingly lyrical influence on Sayles’s compositions. He still doesn’t like to fuss too much with the camera (if a shot doesn’t further the narrative, it’s out), but in these films even his most static shots feel open, flexible, breathing.

It may seem odd, then, to choose a shot—or, more accurately, a rapid shot/countershot sequence—from Matewan, a film that in many ways illustrates Sayles’ most recalcitrant tendencies: moral absolutism, socialist rhetoric masquerading as dialogue, and characters assigned a single motivation apiece. But Matewan is a powerful story, eloquently told and beautifully acted, the artistic tension between the enormity of the event (the 1920 massacre of West Virginia coal miners) and the snugness of the budget (well under $4 million) producing a visual shorthand and economy of style that reduce every movement to its essence. And while this sometimes has the effect of making the actors do double duty as characters and ideological symbols, Matewan is compelling in no small part because of its limitations and lack of expansiveness. Though filmed mostly aboveground, its scenes are constructed so precisely the claustrophobia of the mine shaft is omnipresent.

A stark Appalachian drama about a face-off between the Stone Mountain Coal Company and the union, Matewan is a classic working-class tale of might versus right. Heroes and villains are drawn in the broadest terms, the former a modest union organizer named Joe Kenehan (the perennially modest Chris Cooper) and a tight-lipped police chief named Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). Wearing the black hats are Hickey and Griggs (Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp), a pair of Company thugs whose job is to terrorize the town and break the union. Throw in some black and Italian scabs, an oily Company spy, and Sayles himself as a ranting Baptist preacher, and you have all the hallmarks of a leftist tragedy.

The shots in question occur almost at the end of the film, and involve a wordless confrontation between Hickey and the film’s most prominent female character, Elma Radnor (a magnificent Mary McDonnell). A worn-out widow who lost her husband in a mining accident, Elma is defined by work and is rarely seen unless doing it or talking about it (usually both). As the film’s violence escalates, Elma remains stoic and brusque, her demeanor virtually unchanged. Then, after a brutal gun battle, a wounded Hickey staggers into her yard where she is, predictably, hanging laundry. Not seeing her, Hickey positions himself between two flapping sheets and takes aim at a lone miner. We watch his back stiffen as he hears the click of a safety catch behind him and turns slowly around. The film cuts to Elma with a shotgun at her shoulder, then back to Hickey whose expression has shifted from wariness to goading contempt. Still watching Hickey, we hear two shots and see him fall, startled, his blood gushing onto the sheet behind him. The final image is of Elma, shaking and crying.

The entire sequence is over in five seconds, and is remarkable less for its blood-on-the-sheets, deflowering symbolism than for its position in the narrative and its last-minute betrayal of our expectations. Occurring after the long-anticipated miners-versus-goons shootout, the killing should have been anticlimactic; instead, Sayles stirs our emotions by shifting emphasis from the general to the particular, and from the political to the personal. We have been waiting for the loathsome Hickey—whose scorn for women is firmly established in his skin-crawling introductory scene—to be killed, but everything has led us to expect the avenger would be Joe. Arcing from union agitator to town protector (a stance cemented by the hint of softness between him and Elma), Joe is the logical killer. Elma’s transformation has been internal and invisible, and by handing the job to her Sayles not only makes the act more cathartic for the audience, he reminds us that suffering does not require an Adam’s apple and a union card.

In fact, for a director so closely identified with men and their concerns (baseball, guns, city politics), Sayles has a long history of fielding powerfully sympathetic female characters. His movies are a fertile source of strong, vaguely ruined women with unfortunate mating histories, and Elma’s later sisters-in-hurt include Elizabeth Peña in Lone Star, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Limbo, and Edie Falco in Sunshine State. Of them all, Elma is the most sparsely drawn, but McDonnell’s marvelous face supplies her backstory (Sayles likes actors with the guarded features of people who have spent a lifetime keeping their own counsel). Lean and brutally focused, Matewan is a work of suggestion and compression, the action outside the frame barely registering. In his book Thinking in Pictures, Sayles comments: “In some sorts of movies… you want a kind of generic simplicity that can become mythic if you do it well enough.” He does.