Written and directed by John Sayles, this wrenching historical drama recounts the true story of a West Virginia coal town where the local miners’ struggle to form a union rose to the pitch of all-out war in 1920. When the town of Matewan’s miners go on strike, organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his screen debut) arrives to help them, uniting workers white and black, Appalachia-born and immigrant, while urging patience in the face of the coal company’s violent provocations. With a crackerjack ensemble cast—including James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, and Will Oldham—and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Haskell Wexler, Matewan taps into a rich vein of Americana with painstaking attention to local texture, issuing an impassioned cry for justice that still resounds today.
John Sayles’ Matewan comes to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a brand new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Right off it’s clear the colours in the film lean far warmer, making blues more like a cyan and skin-tones more yellow. Home Theater Forum posted a video covering their visit with Lee Kline as he was working on Matewan, Kline explaining how they referenced a print left by director of photography Haskell Wexler that clearly showed the film’s desired colour scheme. Sayles and Wexler also talk about the colours in the included audio commentary (recorded in 2013, I assume for an overseas edition) and mention the desire to suck out all primary colours and make the image very warm, using a variety of filters and post-production techniques, even mentioning that the version they’re watching, an older master, isn’t as warm as they intended. Well, the image here certainly is warm, insanely so at points, but impressively it doesn’t have much of an impact on other areas of the picture. There are a lot of dark shots in the film, looking to be lit by simple lamps at times, but the black levels look clean, not crushed, and shadow detail can be impressive during these moments. Whites are also a bit warmer, but they’re still balanced nicely and look more white than yellow. The whites can also bloom in a few places, though it’s obvious this is a side effect of the photography and nothing to do with the digital presentation.
As to that digital presentation itself it’s incredibly clean. It cleanly renders the film’s grain while also keeping all of the finer details, delivering a number of astounding long shots of the town and its surroundings. The restoration work has also cleaned up damage and I don’t recall a single blemish ever popping up. In the end it looks spectacular and if it wasn’t for the incredibly young Chris Cooper you’d swear this was filmed in the last couple of years.
The film features a monaural soundtrack, presented here in lossless 1.0 PCM. The narration that pops up here and there sounds tinny and flat, but the rest of the soundtrack comes off a little more robust. Dialogue and music feature decent fidelity and range, though range isn’t all that wide. But it is clean and free of damage and noise.
For their first John Sayles release Criterion packs on some great material covering the film’s production and the area where the film takes place. They first dig up and audio commentary recorded by Sayles and Wexler in 2013 (again, I assume it’s for an overseas edition since there has been no other release for the film in North America since the Artisan DVD). The two have been recorded together but Sayles has the bulk of the track, with Wexler only speaking up in places, usually when he’s addressed directly. Sayles talks in depth about how the film came to be, offering a lot around the historical research he did around the incident, and the history of unions, while also mentioning films that influenced him (unsurprisingly Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer being one). When Wexler chimes in it’s usually around the technical aspects and look of the film, particularly the low lighting of many scenes, using simple lamps (or create the illusion that that was the case) to light an entire shot, and Wexler explains how this was pulled off. As mentioned Sayles ends up taking up most of the track but even on his own he keeps it engaging and inciteful.
Criterion then includes two making-of documentaries, the first called Union Dues (named after a book Sayles had written), and the other called Sacred Words, running 26-minutes and 31-minutes respectively. The commentary does cover some of the same material, but these documentaries ultimately benefit from getting multiple perspectives, this time from Sayles, actor/producer Maggie Renzi, production designer Nora Chavooshian, and then actors Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, James Earl Jones and Will Oldham. Union Dues is the more general making-of, going over its inception, development, casting, and so forth, though gets surprisingly technical when getting into the film’s look. It’s a fine making-of but I was more enamored by Sacred Words which is specifically about the actors, their performances, developing their characters, and working with Sayles and each other.
Criterion then throws in a couple more interviews, the first with composer Mason Daring. Daring’s interview starts off with him explaining how he came to work with Sayles previously (he almost passed on an earlier job with him out of fear he wouldn’t get paid) before talking about the Appalachian music in the film, the instruments used, the vocals, and more. Production designer Nora Chavooshian also appears in her own interview to talk about the location search and how they converted the town of Thurmond, West Virginia to Matewan, the real Matewan modernized too much to be of any use (Thurmond, on the other hand, was still stuck in a certain time). The interviews are 19-minutes and 15-minutes respectively.
The most interesting feature on here, though, may be Them That Work, a 28-minute documentary about the impact the production of Matewan had on the area. The production came in, hiring a number of locals looking for work, either in roles in the film or for jobs on the crew, and many of those people, who still live in the area, talk about the experience on-camera (this was all filmed in 2004), or explain how the film influenced them (Morgan Spurlock, somewhat surprisingly, being one of them). On top of that there is some more background about the actual Matewan massacre, and the opening portion also provides a brief bit of background about Sayles’ career up to that point. It’s a great addition.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and the included insert features an essay by A. S. Hamrah about the film, the area’s history, and the difficulties still faced there today, nicely closing things off and offering a satisfying conclusion to the supplements.
A nicely well-rounded edition, offering a rich selection of supplements and a stunner of a restoration. A highly recommended release.