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John Sayles
Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell
Writing Credits:
John Sayles

A labor union organizer comes to an embattled mining community brutally and violently dominated and harassed by the mining company.

Box Office:
Domestic Gross:

Rated PG-13.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English PCM 1.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 133 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 10/29/2019

• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director John Sayles and Cinematographer Haskell Wexler
• “The Making of Matewan” Featurettes
• “The Music of Matewan” Featurette
• “Production Design” Featurette
• “Them That Work” Featurette
• Trailer
• Booklet


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Matewan: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1987)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 4, 2019)

One of noted indie director John Sayles’ earlier efforts, 1987’s Matewan provides a period drama. Set in 1920, the film takes us to a coal town in West Virginia.

In this setting, miners struggle to form a union. Unsurprisingly, the company opposes this, and they counteract the miners via a few methods.

Along with oppressive thugs meant to suppress the labor movement, the bosses bring in both Italian and black miners to do the work instead of the striking miners. Union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) enters the situation to settle matters and attempt to unify all parties, the scab workers included.

Given that Sayles’ career started as the screenwriter of flicks like 1978’s Piranha and 1981’s The Howling, it becomes a surprise that he eventually came to embrace much more serious material. His same-generation colleagues like Joe Dante and James Cameron remained more in the fantasy vein most of the time, but Sayles firmly pushed toward dramas.

We certainly see no semblance of “horror movie Sayles” via Matewan, as it seems at odds with his earlier screenplays. However, it fits the rest of his career, as he’d continue with dramas like 1988’s Eight Men Out.

I love the latter and find it difficult to imagine I’ll discover another Sayles project I prefer to Eight Men Out. That said, Matewan works fine in its own right and creates an involving character tale.

On the surface, Matewan sounds like it’ll offer a backwoods Norma Rae, but both films take different paths as they tell of union organizing. Whereas Rae acts as a political document mixed with female empowerment – and some romance - Matewan focuses more on its participants and their journeys.

Given that Matewan gets into bigotry and bridges crossed, it can be viewed as political in its own right, but it feels less like a product of its time compared to Rae. Oh, Sayles definitely reflects the Reagan era in some ways, but it doesn’t come across as “period specific” as its 1979 predecessor.

Don’t view that as a slam on Norma Rae, as that movie holds up well. However, it took place in then-modern times, so its reflection of the era made more sense than attempts to jam a circa 1920 story into 1987 would’ve.

As a character tale, Matewan offers what we call a “slow boil”, and this means a lot of the movie passes without much overt action. While events related to the union certainly appear regularly, the film’s first two acts build these elements gradually and allow the personalities to develop.

That seems like a good choice, as Sayles allows us to get to know the characters before anything major evolves. It doesn’t act as a spoiler to note that tensions will eventually erupt, as that seems like a natural path for a story like this.

When the inevitable occurs, Matewan boasts power because we know and invest in the characters. Sayles allows the tale to flow gradually and culminate in a powerful impact.

Sayles found an excellent cast as well. In addition to Cooper – in his movie debut – we get people like James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Straithairn, and others. All offer honest, nuanced performances that add heft to the tale.

All of this means Matewan ends up as a compelling period piece about the working class and their attempts to elevate their surroundings. It creates a rich, involving work.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

Matewan appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a largely appealing presentation, though also one likely to cause controversy.

The issue relates to the film’s color timing, as Matewan came with an intensely green/teal impression. Some amber popped up as well, but the movie demonstrated a borderline oppressive sense of green/teal much of the time.

The Criterion Blu-ray represented my first screening of the movie, so I can’t compare to prior experiences. The package’s notes state that “an archival 35mm print manufactured by the UCLA Television and Film Archive under the supervision of cinematographer Haskell Wexler was used as a color reference”, and director John Sayles supervised this 4K scan.

Does this prove that the colors of the Blu-ray are “right”? Maybe, maybe not. Wexler passed away a few years ago, so he couldn’t work on the transfer.

I’ll leave it to others to decide if the hues are correct, wrong or somewhere in between. Given the color choices, they looked fine as depicted.

Overall sharpness satisfied. Occasionally I saw minor instances of softness – usually during interiors – but the movie depicted a nice sense of accuracy and delineation.

I saw no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges, and edge haloes failed to appear. With a nice – but not oppressive – layer of grain, I didn’t sense any digital noise reduction here, and print flaws remained absent.

Blacks offered nice depth and darkness, while low-light shots presented fairly positive smoothness. This became a high-quality transfer, with only the questions about color accuracy as a potential concern.

I found the PCM monaural soundtrack of Matewan to also seem more than adequate given the film’s vintage and ambitions. Dialogue remained intelligible and distinct throughout the movie, with no edginess on display.

Effects came across with adequate clarity. Music sounded reasonably full, though I couldn’t claim the score showed terrific range. The audio didn’t dazzle, but it worked fine.

As we shift to extras, we start with an audio commentary from writer/director John Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Recorded in 2013, both sit together for this running, screen-specific look at story/characters and historical elements, cast and performances, sets and locations, music, lighting and photography, and related issues.

Don’t expect much from Wexler, as he fails to say much. Alas, we get no discussion of the film’s colors, so the commentary fails to address that potential controversy.

Sayles dominates the chat and offers a fairly good view of the film. He touches on the appropriate subjects and makes this a reasonably informative chat.

Under The Making of Matewan, we find two featurettes: “Union Dues” (26:17) and “Sacred Words” (31:28). Across these, we hear from Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, production designer Nora Chavooshian, and actors James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, David Straithairn and Will Oldham.

The programs cover the project’s roots and development, research/history, story and characters, the crew, production design and cinematography, locations and reflections on West Virginia, cast and performances, Sayles’ work as director, and various memories of the shoot.

Across nearly an hour, we get good reflections related to the film. I can’t call “Making” a great overview, but it works well and gives useful observations.

Footnote: only Chavooshian discusses the film’s colors here, which she refers to as primarily “grays, dark blues and browns”. She doesn’t mention the greens that we see on this Blu-ray.

With The Music of Matewan, we get an 18-minute, 46-second interview with composer Mason Daring. He examines how he came to Matewan as well as his work on the film. Daring brings us a nice sense of the subject matter.

Production Design spans 14 minutes, 43 seconds and brings a chat with Chavooshian. She discusses her work on the film and challenges related to its limited budget. Abetted by glimpses of photos and art from the production, this becomes a good chat.

In addition to the film’s trailer, the disc finishes with Them That Work, a 27-minute, 57-second program. In this, we get remarks from Sayles, Cooper, Renzi, Straithairn, Wexler, Oldham, producer Peggy Rajski, Storming Heaven author Denise Giardina, film extras Daniel Boyd, AJ Milam, Gene and Colin Worthington, and Bill Richardson, University of Iowa professor David Ryfe, theatrical storyteller Karen Vuranch, When Miners March book editor Wess Harris, Matewan Mayor Sheila Kessler, National Park Service’s Leah Perkowski, West Virginia resident Tom Dragan, 2n unit cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, filmmakers Morgan Spurlock, Van Flesher and Dave Brock, former WV residents Ellen and John Bullock, former WV Film Office director Pamela Haynes, and actor Scott Martin.

“Work” covers some of the history related to the film as well as its path to the screen, shooting in West Virginia and the production’s impact on the community. Some of “Work” repeats from other extras, but its focus on the WV locations and locals gives it added insight.

As usual, a booklet completes the package. This foldout affair mixes credits, art and an essay from critic AS Hamrah. It concludes matters well.

A grim character tale, Matewan offers a good snapshot of its era and circumstances. Packed with solid performances and an involving narrative, the movie works well. The Blu-ray offers positive audio and a nice array of supplements along with visuals that look good but may cause controversy. Despite the latter topic, this becomes a nice release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5 Stars Number of Votes: 4
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