There have been thrillers about miners trapped underground before, but perhaps none as visceral and stripped down as writer-director Eddie Mensore’s Mine 9. Instead of positioning itself as a feel good movie about overcoming adversity or mounting an overarching political message about the human price paid for our conveniences, Mine 9 is the most poignant and terrifying sort of drama: a film about good, hard working, sympathetic people in a life or death situation.
At a coal mine in Appalachia, a long running argument about working conditions is about to reach a breaking point. After several near misses with potentially asphyxiating and explosive methane pockets in a mine shaft, site supervisor Zeke (Terry Serpico) is looking to shut things down for a bit and reassess the safety of the operation. Surprisingly, resistance is found not in corporate leadership, but from fellow miners, led by Zeke’s alcoholic younger brother, Kenny (Mark Ashworth). If the site closes down for any reason, a lot of workers who only know how to mine coal will be jobless. Most of them would rather die in the mine so their families can collect on their life insurance policies than be left out of a job in a declining industry that’s been built on the backs of generations worth of Appalachian workers. They all know people who’ve died in the mines, and they all know the risks, but nothing can prepare them for the day when the crew gets trapped with little means of tunneling out, little back up, and only an hour’s worth of oxygen while stranded two miles underground.
Mine 9 is captivating and suspenseful even before the obvious tragedy arrives. Immediately and after opening with a reciting of the Coal Miner’s Prayer, one is struck by the authenticity of Mine 9, something that’s backed up over the closing credits, as well, via interviews conducted with actual coal miners who essentially back up everything the film has to say about the dangers of the industry and the commitment shown by these workers. Although there isn’t a lot of lighting in these tunnels, Mine 9 is still able to show off the close quarters, low ceilings, and various pieces of massive machinery with greater and sharper detail than films with ten times the budget. It’s filmed with a lot of close-ups and wide angles not out of any sort of stylistic choice, but out of necessity. Everyone is appropriately dirty, and the work looks appropriately back breaking and thankless. It looks and feels every bit like a coal mine, not some sort of set with only a moderate level of dustiness and unusually high ceilings for being so far underground.
Mensore’s script is as believable as it is perceptive and richly detailed, placing its characters and their personal relationships above everything else. It’s something that most disaster pictures attempt to do, but Mine 9 is able to flesh out not one, but several intriguing characters in roughly half the time, including Zeke’s eighteen year-old nephew, Ryan (Drew Starkey), a young man who wants little to do with his dad’s profession and is taking his first trip underground, and Teresa (Erin Elizabeth Burns), a mine manager with a messy personal life who remains on the surface and who’ll eventually have to figure out a way to rescue the trapped workers. Mensore spends time with these people in their natural habitat, alongside their friends and family. We watch them clash, and also can immediately understand where those disagreements are coming from. Things will eventually turn harrowing and bloody, but Mensore makes sure that viewers know these characters well enough to care about them when things go south in a hurry. Serpico and Ashworth have to do a lot of the dramatic (and literal) heavy lifting here, and watching them either butting heads or taking charge of a situation is exceptional, but the rest of the supporting cast pulls their weight. Everyone looks and acts credibly like a coal miner, to a point where one might wonder if the script was pulled word for word from a documentary on the subject. No one sounds like an actor here, and that’s a testament to the strength of Mensore’s script and his talented cast.
Mine 9 never overstates or overplays anything until its final act, when everything becomes a chaotic race against the clock, but prior to that it’s a respectful look at a much maligned and somewhat misunderstood profession that never romanticizes or demonizes. I can imagine that once you’re trapped miles underground and breathing poisonous air, you probably wouldn’t be thinking about people in Washington or the rest of the world think about your job or what the product being mined is doing to the environment. There’s a time and place for those discussions, but Mine 9 is about more immediate problems. In fact, the only talk of politics in Mine 9 comes from battling interests within the industry itself, adding a further layer of self containment to an already compact story. All of the conflicts arise from within, not the outside world. There’s a subtextual question that lingers throughout about whether or not coal is worth the lives it has cost thousands of families over several generations, but outside of that Mine 9 has a laser focus on the actual human element of its story.
When things go from bad to worse, Mine 9 turns into more of a conventional survival thriller, but Mensore has built up plenty of investment and good will up to that point. Things get appropriately smoky, wet, and chaotic, but the pace never lets up. The entirety of Mine 9, sans credits interviews that are worth sticking around for, clocks in at just under 80 minutes, with the final act hitting so forcefully that one barely notices how little time has gone by. Of this week’s two films about people trapped underground in small, unnavigable spaces, Mine 9 is assuredly the better and more harrowing of the pair.
Mine 9 opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, August 16, 2019. It opens in Hinton, Alberta on August 21, Sudbury, Ontario on August 23, and Vancouver on August 26.
Check out the trailer for Mine 9: