John Sayles is arguably America’s greatest independent filmmaker, having spent a lifetime navigating the backwards industry known as Hollywood as a ghostwriter in order to finance his own fiercely independent productions. As writer, director, and editor, Sayles’ stamp is clear- a deeply humanist and compassionate lens, part Ken Loach without the overt socialism, part Cassavetes without quite delving into the darkness.

Matewan is arguably his swan song- at least, if you judge it by the critics, for it might be the only time one of his films truly received universal acclaim. It’s not without reason- Matewan is a powerful story, gorgeously shot in muted, nostalgic colors by the great Haskell Wexler, with an equally impressive cast: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, and the great Will Oldham when he was a mere teen.

And the story… a classic tale of coal workers, union organizers, a strike, the law, the Coal Company, and all the average, innocent, working-class people caught in the political struggles of money and power. There are lots of guns in this film, and even a big shootout, but Sayles is too good a filmmaker to rest merely on violence in his films. As with all of his work, it’s the dialogue- the small moments between characters- that makes his work shine, and this cast does a terrific job of infusing their characters with memorable quirks and color.

Were Matewan a studio film, most of those quirks would be gone, and in their place, 2-dimensional characters and a formulaic plot taking you from a forgettable A to an unmemorable Z. But Sayles is the real deal: stubbornly independent, writing about what he wants to write about, doing thing his way. And while I, personally, love some of his more esoteric and challenging films (Men With Guns) best, Matewan remains an American classic worth its weight in… coal.

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