Sunday, May 07, 2006


Cinecom Entertainment Group
Director: John Sayles
Length: 133 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 1 May, 2006

John Sayles' Matewan is a film that relies far too heavily on exaggerated distinctions between good and evil.

The story concerns a real-life mining strike in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920, in which miners attempted to become unionized to protect themselves from their ridiculously greedy and criminally negligent employers. Performances are outstanding across the board, and Haskell Wexler's cinematography is remarkable. The film is long and talky, but always tense and tightly edited, and when it was all over I wished the film was longer.

The story is a fascinating one, but the characters, though largely likable, are cartoonish to the point where the film can't be taken as seriously as it should be. The "good" miners and townspeople are given some character flaws and a somewhat balanced portrayal, but we can never for one second doubt that they are precious lambs who need Cooper's Union-man Kenehan and Strathairn's Police Chief Hatfield's sheep-herder like protection.

More cartoonish are the Baldwin-Felt detectives, Hickey and Griggs (Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, respectively), caricatured so heavily that they may as well be twirling handle-bar mustaches after tying Nell Fenwick to railroad tracks. Tighe and Clapp give good performances to be sure, but they are so over-the-top in their evil that we can scarcely believe that the detectives of the Baldwin-Felts Agency could have been so monstrous, even though in real-life they were little more than murderers and thieves. The strong good/evil divide would have been much easier to digest had Sayles given them a more balanced portrayal along the lines of the miners/townspeople.

Sayles has made a good film here, but one can't help but thinking that with a little more work, it could have been great.


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