Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Danny "Squirrel Preacher" Radnor and The Mingo County Massacre

Much as I loved Adaptation and much as I'd love to go on and on about why American Beauty gradually revealed itself to be a trite hunk of dipchaw -- Chris Cooper came on the scene in one of the most exciting places in cinema history. That place is Matewan, West Virginia, 1920 and Cooper is union activist Joe Kenehan -- just about the bravest, stout-hearted pacifist you're ever likely to see. Cooper may be in his first film, but his presence is strikingly keen from the get-go. Maybe in the end you sympathize more with the miners, but that's the beauty part of his humble, yet indelible performance. And Sayles completely vacuum-sealed direction and writing was no doubt a big help. In addition to being Cooper's best film, it's also Sayles. It has the feel of something true -- showing us would-be salt-of-the-earth hollywood archetypes in a patient and rewardingly vivid fashion. When juxtaposed with the over-sized quality of the sinister coal company thugs Griggs and Hickey (Gordon Clapp and Kevin Tighe), this veracity amasses a strong undercurrent that locks the viewer in.

Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor) is wonderful as always. She has one of those faces that just transfixes you, and her deep accent never once feels even slightly inauthentic. And a young Will Oldham as Elma's son Danny, is the picture of gawky chagrin:

and extremely natural at the same time. His articulate, in-the-fabric presence is pretty amazing for a young, first-time actor. If the film has a heart, it's most certainly his character. David Straithairn is also pitch-perfect as the sullen yet heroic town sheriff:

Then theres the simmering, defiant presence of James Earl Jones as the fearless, big hearted striker Few Clothes Johnson. In addition to his keen eye for acting talent, Sayles has always excelled at writing ensemble pieces with a strong throughline. He's not particularly experimental with this approach, like Altman, but when he applies his impeccable knack for earnest, unpretentious drama to a genre template the results are always equally engrossing. Matewan is like the violent, funny, and unapologetically sentimental blockbuster that somehow wasn't. There are stars in it, as this is a star-making flick with star-making performances, but decidedly not in the ho-hum world of the mainstream (2 oscar noms -- one for Sayles and one for cinematographer Haskell Wexler).

Despite its perplexing relative obscurity, this film feels like something grand. It's whopping 135 minutes go by majestically, where the film builds so much tension and provides so much hard-won endearment, that you'll only check how long it is because you're afraid it's going to end. Despite the "stars" I've mentioned, there really isn't a weak link in the fence. There's little to nothing in the way of deep character study, as the situations at hand are dire and immediate. Yet there's an exceptional balance of setting up a sizable sprawl of events leading to the big union/Baldwin-Felps confrontation in an imperceptible way. It also never forces an ideology on the viewer. Like Fuller's Steel Helmet, the crux of what makes the film exceptional is not its politics but its investment in the plight of it's pain-stakingly rendered characters. Despite the lack of delving, there are just the right amount of signature touches to the performances that you identify with everyone immediately.

There's even a deranged sort of humor at play in the otherwise plain old nasty turns by Clapp and Tighe as the unscrupulous company hatchet-men. Sort of like the bounty hunter at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Hugh Millais), they're too realistic to be iconic, but just curious enough to be memorable. Also like that character, they can make your blood run cold at the drop of a hat. Somehow, mixed in with the loathsomeness, is a sort of antidote to the mostly somber, unassailable qualities of the townfolk. It's hard not to chuckle when Griggs is picking on Danny at the dinner table -- bemused at hearing he's a preacher -- insisting that he stands on a stump in the woods sermonizing forest creatures. I know that sounds horrible, as though I'm conceding that this decidedly real life sort of situation, requires a little calloused irreverence. But Sayles has made a film that has good guys and bad guys, and while he skates being overtly exploitative, there is still the inevitable pull of that simple dichotomy. What amazes me is how he hooks us with this template, but lets it pan out in a way that is more rewardingly affecting and rich with subtle detail than one would expect. Even the voice-over is pitch-perfect, and its hard to find films that don't turn that approach into something tediously overbearing.

It's more or less a flawless film, and one I'd recommend to anyone who likes a solid, no-nonsense drama that charms you but doesn't overdo it. There's harshness and sweetness in good measure, but unlike Cold Mountain (a good enough movie in its own right) it never veers into groan-inducing territory. My only qualm with Sayles no-frills approach was the scene where a woman (Hazel Dickens) sings at the funeral of a slain worker. Her voice, and the way she carries herself is had me so choked that I felt frustrated by the interspersing of dialogue between Kenehan and miner Al Felts (Frank Hoyt Taylor) concerning violent retaliation. As this conflict is established plenty elsewhere, I'm sure the hymn could've stood on its own (apologies for the no-fidelity):

Matewan is a classic film in the least hyperbolic sense possible. It deserves a proper DVD release with all the trimmings, a re-screening and a gazillion tributes like this one and better. I didn't even mention poor Bridey Mae, a widow, as most of the women in the film are, who takes a shining to Kenehan. Nancy Mette's pouty, wide-eyed performance is a heartbreaker and a half. Then there's one-time film actor Ida William's quietly charming and funny performance as Mrs. Knightes (Danny Radner's Grandma). When Griggs draws on Danny at supper, Granny is quick to pointedly remonstrate him about guns at the dinner table. Joe Grifasi's performances as Italian scab-turned-striker Fausto is instantly lovable, and Sayles even pops up as a fire n' brimstone preacher with a performance that gives Paul Dano's There Will Be Blood flailing a run for it's money.

Matewan is a film whose utter richness knows no bounds and one to go back to time and again. Lone Star may be pretty great as a compelling murder mystery concealing a taboo romance, but I'm pretty sure this is Sayles at his peak thus far.

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