The true story of a 1920s West Virginia miners’ strike, pitting noble, multi-racial workers against their bosses’ psychotic henchmen. Rock-solid liberal Sayles hovers dangerously on the edge of didactic worthiness, before wisely heading down the dramatic Western route of black-hat baddies, tense standoffs and bloody gunfights on Main Street. He can’t quite shake the nagging ‘preaching to the converted’ air that so often marks his projects, but gives his typically well-chosen cast – featuring Sayles regulars David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell – space to create convincingly three-dimensional characters, with Will Oldham especially fine as a fiery teenage convert to the workers’ cause. American Beauty star Chris Cooper, then 36, makes a belated but craggily forceful movie debut as the idealistic union organiser – Matewan may fall short of his later Sayles collaboration Lone Star, but it’s an undeniably well-crafted, well-intentioned blast of anti-nostalgia.
12th March 2001