Why this might not seem so easy
While he certainly wasn’t the first independent filmmaker in American cinema, few directors can boast such a long-running career outside the mainstream as John Sayles. His debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), effectively kickstarted the modern indie movement a decade before Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), returning $2m on a self-funded $60k budget. Of his 18 features as writer-director (and usually editor) to date, only one – Baby It’s You (1983) – could be called a studio picture, made under contract and without full artistic control.
A book could be written about his parallel career as one of the most sought after script doctors in the business, or his writer-for-hire gigs that began under Roger Corman with Piranha (1978), quickly adding Alligator (1980) and The Howling (1981) to make for a superior creature-feature triple, the cash for which went – à la John Cassavetes – back into his own personal projects. All this before we even get to his novels and short stories, still going strong in 2020 with the publication of Yellow Earth.
While Sayles has seen the occasional breakout hit (and a pair of Oscar nominations for his screenwriting), he’s not mentioned enough these days alongside those considered his fellow independent filmmakers. Perhaps it has something to do with a seeming lack of interest in stylistic showboating; his approach is wholly in service to storytelling and character.
As with Robert Altman, Sayles’ narratives are often sprawlingly intricate, featuring large casts of characters populated from a recurring stock company of actors. The extensive research that goes into every one of his films results in a keenly understood sense of place and a focus on working people, often marginalised or oppressed – usually by the inherent violence of capitalism – across multiple strata of a given community.
His is an inescapably political cinema, but it’s hard to side with those critics who describe his work as didactic. Sayles’ films often essay deep-set social injustices, but they don’t presume a solution to the complex realities he presents; only an incisively humanistic, empathetic focus on the lives of the working folk who endure them.
The best place to start – Lone Star
Given the support of a major studio distribution arm, Lone Star (1996) is one of the few John Sayles pictures that made it into multiplexes, earning the best financial returns of his career and an Oscar nomination for original screenplay to boot. Headlined by an alliterative cast that includes Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson and a cusp-of-stardom Matthew McConaughey, it’s a modern-western-whodunnit that plays out in a Tex-Mex border town with a combustible local history.
“You live in a place you should learn something about it,” says the botanist to the amateur detectorist in the opening scene before stumbling on the skeletal remains of a lawman, which sets the past on a Faulknerian collision with the present. Sayles sets out to learn us: introducing a series of social and cultural conflicts that stretch all the way back to the Alamo days – the town’s majority Mexican population still subjugated by a white political elite barely hanging on to its remnants of power. Surveying multiple characters across class, racial and generational lines, Sayles slinks between time periods within the same shot, illuminating the effects of secrecy and privilege on the haze of memory.
In a nutshell, the dual timelines centre on Cooper’s sheriff – “All hat and no cattle” – discovering whether his local hero dad (McConaughey) gunned down his psychotic superior (Kristofferson), but Lone Star is all the richer for Sayles’ panoramic, quasi-mythic telling. It’s a film about boundaries and borders, geographical, historical and personal; of whitewashing and revisionism; of trust and power; of fathers digging the truth a shallow grave for the son to unearth.
What to watch next
Sayles had a remarkable run between 1987 and 1997, but his earliest, lowest-budget efforts shouldn’t be overlooked. Return of the Secaucus Seven is the ensemble piece that famously inspired hit reunion flick The Big Chill (1983), one that eschews the latter’s grating nostalgia-porn for a more thoughtful examination of lost idealism in the post-Vietnam, post-sexual revolution era.
You’ll find a pair of early gems in the heartfelt lesbian drama Lianna (1983), featuring a terrific Linda Griffiths as the put-upon wife and mother who leaves her family to enter a relationship with her university professor, and the cosmically allegorical The Brother from Another Planet (1984), which sees Sayles regular Joe Morton as the mute holy fool whose spaceship crash lands in Harlem. Shot by Spike Lee’s early-years DP Ernest Dickerson and featuring a largely black cast and crew, it’s the most direct of Sayles’ early political enquiries, with an emphasis on community that would figure heavily in the films to come.
Afforded an increased budget, Sayles would turn – following a trio of Bruce Springsteen videos – to a pair of historical dramas with Matewan (1987) and the 1919 World Series baseball drama Eight Men Out (1988). The former is up there with Sayles’ best, a dramatisation of the West Virginia mine wars of the early 1920s. With a breakout central turn from Chris Cooper and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Haskell Wexler, Matewan charts the Pyrrhic victory of union workers over mine owners in the eponymous town, surveying the hopelessness and insufficiency of any response – violent or otherwise – to the stranglehold of capital over labour.
The 1990s was truly Sayles’ decade, beginning with the outstanding City of Hope (1991). Fans of The Wire will be in thrall to the breadth of focus of a single-city film, which was inspired by Altman’s Nashville (1975). With more than 50 principal characters, tangentially connected via a cat’s cradle of interconnected relationships, City of Hope offers a top-to-bottom portrait of a vast community under the thumb of corrupt business interests and racial discrimination.
While Sayles couldn’t really be described as a genre filmmaker, he certainly appears to be fascinated by the possibilities and limits of such. A knowingly melodramatic ‘woman’s picture’, Passion Fish (1992) makes clear its awareness in the opening scene, as an actress (an Oscar-nominated Mary McDonnell) awakens from surgery following an accident to watch herself on TV, playing an amnesiac on a popular soap opera. Psychological recovery proves more daunting than physical, as she undergoes therapy with her live-in maid (Alfre Woodard). Drifting between the parameters of genre and realism, this most tender of Sayles’ films charts the shifting power dynamics between the two as it searches for hope on the other side of loss.
As far as the rest of the 90s go, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) stands as a beautiful, if whimsical, ode to storytelling as a means of cultural retention – not to be mistaken for a children’s film, despite its young protagonist. Meanwhile, Men with Guns (1997) is one of Sayles’ most directly political pictures, a Spanish language allegory for the Guatemalan genocide set in an unnamed Latin American country.
Where not to start
While Sunshine State (2002) is a wide-ranging study in cultural and communal friction in the face of outside interests, and Casa de los babys (2003) stands among Sayles’ most underrated – and under-seen – pictures, the rest of his post-millennial output proves a mixed bag. Silver City (2004) is a political satire of the Bush era that retains little bite today, while Alabama blues-club yarn Honeydripper (2007), for all its period detail, suffers longueurs en route to its save-the-club-with-one-last-performance finale, and Amigo (2010) offers a stagebound account of the Philippine-American war.
Better to turn to Limbo (1999), which divided critics at its Cannes premiere, largely as a result of its unresolved finale. The first half, which details the burgeoning relationship between a local Alaskan handyman (David Strathairn) and a club singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), is among Sayles’ best work, before a second-half dive into isolation-thriller territory. Not an ideal place to start, perhaps, but one well worth seeking out.