By Jim Slotek
Darkness is a great equalizer in the film business. A big budget Game of Thrones battle and a low-budget mine cave-in survival story are both gripping when the mind’s eye does the heavy lifting.
And Mine 9, an indie film about a team of Appalachian coal miners trapped two miles down, trying to crawl their way up with an hour of oxygen, makes maximum use of the dark in all its frightening implications.
The kind of movie that comes off like a true story, but isn’t, Mine 9 seems utterly plausible in these days of coal’s decline. Writer/director/producer Eddie Mensore introduces us to our central characters with a jolt. While working deep, with heavy machinery crushing seams of coal, Zeke (Terry Serpico) and his crew discover that methane levels are spiking, with sparks ominously flying where machine hits rock. Following protocol, they take cover behind what is effectively a sheet.
The scene evokes the “duck and cover” films of the Cold War era for its obvious ineffectiveness in an explosion.
But this isn’t the movie’s big moment, merely a foreshadowing of what is to come. Back on the surface, Zeke is furious, demanding that deaf-eared management address the current lack of a supervisor and a rescue team on standby.
The rest of the team is aware they’re pushing safety limits even more than usual, but is also aware that any declaration of “their” mine as unsafe will lead to them losing their jobs. They vote to carry on regardless.
Time often being of the essence in an indie movie (Mine 9 clocks in at an efficient 83 minutes), there is a socially busy church picnic scene where all the main characters’ family connections and conflicts are neatly laid out. Zeke is uneasy that his teenage nephew Ryan (Drew Starkey) – who doesn’t know a water table from a picnic table - is about to go down in the mine for the first time. Ryan’s girlfriend (Annie Thrash) expresses her concern, and his response - that without a job in the mine he can’t even afford to put gas in his car - encapsulizes the prospects for young people in King Coal towns in a single sentence.
Ryan’s father Kenny (Mark Ashworth) sees putting Ryan into the same pit as him as part of the circle of life. He hits the bottle heavily, while the amiable, Bible-reading John (Clint James) is a recovered alcoholic - two characters on opposite sides of a truth about where flirting with death for a living can lead you.
As an extra ingredient in the tragic soup, we meet Teresa (Erin Elizabeth Burns), the acting manager of the understaffed mine, in over her head, and already being given the skunk eye by the miners’ wives to let her know they’ll hold her to blame for anything that happens.
Cue the big event. Given the confluence of accidents, the survivors of the initial blast risk drowning, burning and suffocation, all under shadow of darkness and the glow of helmet lights. Mensore keeps a taut rein over the sequence of events, the frustrations, losses and despair right to the end, with Zeke’s all-for-one leadership tested every other minute.
Mine 9’s verisimilitude is aided by its use of Appalachian folk tunes, both in the soundtrack and as sung by the miners and families. The credits are worth watching as well, for the reminiscences of several West Virginia miners, some of whom have spent up to 45 years of their lives underground for six or seven days a week.
Given the litigiousness of some of the biggest players in the coal industry, a “fictional” story about a believable cave-in is probably the best way to go. The movie offers no answers to the moribund state of states that rely on coal, or the hazards faced by its miners. Like the characters it portrays, Mine 9 simply does its job as best it can with the resources at hand.
Mine 9. Produced, written and directed by Eddie Mensore. Starring Terry Serpico, Drew Starkey and Mark Ashworth. Opens Friday, August 16 in Toronto, with later release in other Canadian cities.