Limbo (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There is little doubt that the most discussed aspect of writer/director/editor John Sayles' Limbo will be the ending. Unconventional and unexpected, the conclusion will inspire outrage in some movie-goers (a patron at the showing I attended hurled something at the screen after the end credits started rolling). Others, however, will recognize that Sayles chooses a resolution that is in keeping with the tone and artistic intent of the rest of the picture. Anything else would have been a capitulation to convention and traditional storytelling.

I am an unabashed Sayles fan, and have been for more than a decade. He is one of the few film makers with a lengthy resume who hasn't directed a bad motion picture, and he never stops taking risks or seeking new sources of inspiration. Over the course of his career, he has set films in (among other places) New Jersey during the 1960s (Baby, It's You), on the Tex-Mex border (Lone Star), in Ireland (The Secret of Roan Inish), in the bayous of Louisiana (Passion Fish), in an unnamed Latin American country (Men with Guns), and now in Alaska, "the last great American frontier." With the exception of the atypical ending, Limbo ranks as one of Sayles' most accessible pictures. But mainstream audiences will hate what happens at the two hour mark.

If it's not obvious at first why this film is called Limbo, it will be by the time the proceedings have finished. The movie is about three characters trapped in an emotional paralysis from which only death will free them. They are not happy people. In their own way, each of them is deeply troubled. Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn) is an introverted, lonely man who is haunted by a past that includes a tragic fishing accident in which two of his friends died. Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a second-rate lounge singer whose life has consisted of a series of failed relationships. Her daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), is a disturbed teenager who entertains thoughts of suicide and self-mutilation. These three meet and interact in the town of Port Henry, Alaska, where Donna lands a gig at the local bar.

For a while, Limbo seems like it might be a slow-burning romance and tale of redemption, but, as is often the case, Sayles takes his audience in unexpected directions (unexpected because they defy comfortable, traditional narrative routes). Joe ends up in the middle of the mother/daughter struggle because he is involved with them both, albeit in different ways. He sleeps with Donna but acts almost like an older brother to Noelle. Meanwhile, his employers have given him the opportunity to once again try his hand at commercial fishing - something he has avoided for 25 years. Then his brother, Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), shows up in town looking for his help crewing a boat. Joe agrees, and invites Donna and Noelle to come along. Bobby is none-too-pleased by the inclusion of two passengers, and, after a while, it becomes apparent why: this isn't a routine trip; Bobby is being hunted by gangsters, and the presence of so many innocent bystanders complicates matters.

As is his trademark, Sayles gradually builds the characters, continually exposing us to new facets of their personalities. By the end of the movie, we feel that we know them intimately (a remarkable achievement considering how poorly developed most characters are these days). Nearly every scene offers a unique disclosure about Joe, Donna, or Noelle. Often, these are not sudden, shocking, or momentous truths, but they're always substantive. The accumulation of such revelations contributes to the complexity of the characters and their relationships. It's also worth noting that Sayles populates his cinematic world with a gallery of rich supporting players. Even the most inconsequential individuals in Limbo have an interesting trait or two.

Limbo could accurately be described as a thriller, although it's slower moving than most films pigeonholed into that genre. During the second half, when the three protagonists are stranded on a deserted island, Sayles enters seemingly familiar territory. It doesn't take long, however, for him to stake out his own patch of land. This is no lightweight romantic fantasy (Six Days, Seven Nights), nor is it an exploration of man's triumph over nature (The Edge). Instead, it's an examination of how the survival instinct wars with feelings of loneliness and despair. Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler make the sense of cold and gloom palpable. Alaska may be a beautiful place (as is shown in several of Wexler's tremendous scenery shots), but its grandeur has a cold, cruel side that is amply illustrated here.

David Strathairn, having recovered from being miscast in A Midsummer Night's Dream, has rarely been better. The actor, a Sayles regular (this is his seventh outing for the director), brings qualities of ordinariness and quiet intelligence to the part. He never overacts or underacts, and seems to find the perfect tone with which to play every scene. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, known for more flamboyant roles, is effectively low-key here. It's not hard to imagine Donna as the kind of woman Joe might be attracted to. And Vanessa Martinez is believable as a girl struggling with her newly discovered womanhood without the benefit of a solid role model. Smaller parts go to Kris Kristofferson (who also appeared in Sayles' Lone Star) as a local pilot and Leo Burmester (another Lone Star alum) as a disgruntled fisherman who is angry at Joe.

Sayles peppers Limbo with memorable moments. On one occasion, he intercuts six or seven bar conversations, presenting a fascinating mosaic that highlights the similarities of the people who inhabit Port Henry. Later in the film, there's a poignant, mystical quality to the scenes when Noelle reads from a diary she has found on the island. As thrillers go, Limbo is a sedate film, but that's the point. It's not about vital characters striving to achieve great things; instead, it's about a trio of broken human beings who are trapped in stasis, heading for a dead-end. And, when you think about it, that's exactly what Limbo's controversial conclusion depicts.

Limbo (United States, 1999)

Director: John Sayles
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson, Casey Siemaszko, Leo Burmester
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1999-06-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1