Matewan Review

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In a company-owned coal-mining town in West Virginia in 1920, off-the-boat Italians and donwtrodden Alabama blacks are brought in to replace the striking local work force. Joe Kenehan, a labour organiser, tries to bring the new workers into the union, wh


With authentic folk songs, incidental details and period locations, writer-director John Sayles' Matewan is almost a socialist Western. The wandering hero drops off the train like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock to stir up the small town, and the individualist Sheriff straps on his guns like Gary Cooper in High Noon for the big showdown. And, like both those avowedly left-wing films, it tends to depict 'the people' as feckless bigots who can be manipulated for good by the hero and evil by the corporate villains.

The film sort of trails off after its big action scene, never quite following through the story of the incident, which was historically the first shot in a major series of union-company wars in the South, and leaving many of its dramatic conflicts unresolved. Along the way, however, it has gutsy characterisations, a performance of heroic stature from Cooper, effective regional humour, distinctive backwoods score, the haunting visuals of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and plenty of useful rabble-rousing.

It's a big story, but told through small moments - the ethnic mix of the strikers producing new sounds as musicians play together, menace over the dinner table as the comapny's killers leer at a landlady who has thrown in with the union - rather than expansive action scenes. It refuses to cop out by having its pacifist, communist hero strap on a gun for the finish, and is also balanced in its depiction of the inherent racism and conservatism of the '20s unions.

Chris Cooper's superb performance and numerous authentic details makes this a little gem