309 Great Directors: John Sayles

“Some of it is, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going. I had an overview of the chronology of the history and some idea of where the characters were going to end up. But as far as how they were going to get there, no.”

Why This Director?
: He has had a long, esteemed career, and the two films I’ve seen from him were very enjoyable…yet not much critical consensus beyond “Lone Star is his best work.” I wanted to make my own opinions.

My Last Experience Was…: Passion Fish (loved) and Go For Sisters (liked).

What Did I Watch: One from each decade (except the 10s obviously): Matewan for the 80s, Lone Star for the 90s, and Sunshine State for the 00s. Sample platter! And to make it more fun, reverse order.

Where Does He Fit: Sunshine State immediately had a leg up for me via the incredible cast he put together, which is a pretty phenomenal group of actors, and by once again setting itself in Florida and tackling race, this time via the issue of property values and the ensemble cast spinning around the issues of segregation still having roots in the community. All very well and good, but the quality could stand to be more…meshed neatly. It’s a film that mostly goes along nicely, with a few bumps. A group of golfers who stand to benefit from the development of the area serves as a Greek chorus of sorts, but why? On the other hand, the actors, who have noticed the choir, take the approach of starting off with the broadest approach to their characters (except Angela Bassett, bless her) to fit the theatrical conceit while growing more and nuanced as we go along, which works like blazes. The running time of 135 minutes sounds offputting on paper, but Sayles really gets how to use his running times to probe what needs to be probed in his casts, so I say bring it on and relax in the sunshine for a few hours and change while thinking about generational strife. (Most agree this is the high point of his 2000s output.)


Lone Star is almost the exact same length as Sunshine State and has the advantage over it in almost every possible way despite covering the similar themes that seem to make up all of his work in the form of racial issues and the past. The skeleton in the closet…or dirt, rather…is found immediately rather than postponed, and it is used as a device to excavate the many demons in this town’s past, running through a laundry list of residents. Said body belonged to a flaming racist sheriff who had pretty much no redemptive qualities and whose departure was viewed with the sentiment of “good riddance” by the population, a deeply diverse border town with racial tensions on a level that is existent, but not terrifying or overpowering, now that he is gone, and the primary issue lies in how to handle the textbooks of the classrooms that teach the histories of the future. Everything from this point onward goes into territory that could have just as easily been a novel, yes, but the performances and little visual touches (the old woman playing a video game that beeps away as she is asked some questions) make it clear that Sayles doesn’t just want his works to be literary, he wants them to be cinematic too even if that’s not necessarily his strongest suit. With only one pure evil character, everyone else is operating at different levels of flawed, with his replacement that initially gets seen as a hero being revealed to be a bit of an asshole in his own right, and his son (Chris Cooper, second best in show) struggling to deal with the mixed emotions of being his inheritor when his father destroyed his relationship with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena, best in show by a huge margin in an ensemble that does not exactly lack for talent) and having to deal with at least one racist drunkenly moaning about how he will be the last white sheriff in the town. Shared histories are everywhere in this, and where this really succeeds is in the way it excavates the various complications, down to an ending that I sort of saw coming, but not the specific details that come out of it. Beautiful stuff, and when Frances McDormand is the biggest dud in your story, you know you are on to something special in the way you tear it apart.


If the racial tensions in Go For Sisters, Passion Fish, and Sunshine State are mostly background noise and rather small in the grand scheme of things, and Lone Star portrays them as being a complicated and thorny issue, Matewan’s look at the coal miner’s strikes of 1920 that led to a battle shows the racial issues being prodded by those at the top, unambiguously, with black workers hired as scabs and thrown in front of the white population. Chris Cooper is once again the de facto hero, a union organizer, and props for only utilizing the “this is what history was like!” moments in a scene where the preacher lectures in the more loud and unsubtle moments, and there, it works appropriately and adds texture, no summarizing the times, quickly back to Few Clothes Johnson taking more offense at getting called a scab than the n-word. It’s like an Altman movie with very clearly scripted dialogue as opposed to natural, weirdo improvisations that reflect the character. I wish every Sayles film was as pitch perfect as Lone Star, and this is not, but it sure looks gorgeous, with a Best Cinematography nomination that is frustrating at the moment, with the quality of the version I saw clearly not the best it could be, but it certainly had gorgeous landscapes and houses to work with, with a mist seeming to hang over everything. Nothing about Matewan really comes across as perfect filmmaking while you are watching it due to how the sides are so black and white, and the voiceover is used a little too often, but the highs are delirious and the lows are painful, so something is getting done exactly right even if some might argue that it would all fall on the back of the ensemble and Haskell Wexler. I think my soft spot for this is a combination of expecting dramatic movies to do the broad strokes of what Sayles is doing in his stuff and not quite understanding the visual side of it until I saw the broadest edition of it, but that feels undersold, with the bloody sheets in the river, the celebration of the groups coming together, and the quiet sad bonds that form in other areas that culminate in a real “holy shit” ending. In the specificity of the performances, this is something where plenty of scenes that fleshed everyone’s dynamics out were shot and removed. That is a compliment.


Most Valuable Asset: He is a superb writer and that’s all you need for something at least good.
Most Excited For: Apparently, his late 90s stuff was an unofficial trilogy if you look at Keyframe’s article on him, so I’ll say the other two in that series: Secret of Roan Irish and Men With Guns. (I can’t see myself not becoming a completionist at one time or another, though, especially with a great article on City of Hope recently that makes it also sound pretty great.)

Coming Up Next: Lisandro Alonso’s unusual Argentine examinations.


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