JOHN SAYLES LIVES up to the title Limbo many times over—perhaps a few more times than he intended. Joe (David Strathairn) walks through life haunted by a past misdeed that hangs over him like a gray cloud, skirting by as an amiable but heavily armored handyman in this little Alaskan fishing town, an end-of-the-line coastal community. Flighty Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a bar singer and single mom who leaps from one doomed relationship to another, hauling her emotionally wrecked daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), along to every crummy live-in affair, finally landing here. The town is caught between collapsing industry (the mill closed down years ago, the cannery is on the verge) and gentrification as entrepreneurs move in to turn Alaska into a tourist mecca. ("Think of Alaska as one big theme park," chirps one visionary.)
Directed by John Sayles
Starring David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson
Opens June 4 at Guild 45th
For more than an hour, Sayles weaves the destinies of more than a dozen characters into the changing face of the tiny community, suggesting a kind of sprawling, multi-character mini-epic along the lines of Lone Star or City of Hope, with social politics and modern history grounded in the stories of Joe, Donna, and Noelle. Then an ill-fated boat ride strands the trio on a deserted coastal island as rainstorms and cold nights signal the onset of winter. The community and its concerns are left far behind, hanging like an unfinished painting, and the film transforms from multidimensional portrait to survivalist drama: foraging for food, living in the ruins of a collapsing cabin, building signal fires, and nervously waiting for a rescue as they anticipate the return of a pair of homicidal gunmen.
THERE'S A GREAT FILM—or perhaps two good films—waiting to break out of Limbo. The first hour holds the promise of a film that never materializes, but knotty character conflicts between hard-headed locals and bottom-line businesspeople who have adopted the sleepy fishing town as their next going concern ultimately lead nowhere, and Limbo comes off as a stale remake of Northern Exposure with a PC twist and a jolt of conservation policy. Making the local inn owners a pair of transplanted lesbian lawyers probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but they are left as little more than unformed extras—characters caught in dramatic . . . well, limbo. Joe hasn't been on a boat in 20 years because of a devastating accident, yet this tortured legacy is wiped away in a single day's outing. Colorful local Leo Burmester (a Sayles company regular) wages a war of wills on the lawyers, but to what effect?
Once shipwrecked on the island, however, the carefully sown seeds of character blossom in scenes that subtly build to a powerful conclusion. The quiet pragmatism of Joe, the cockeyed romantic hope of Donna, the dour doom of emotional orphan Noelle, the strains between mother and daughter—all broadly outlined in the opening hour—form the essence of the second half: part survivalist drama, part abstract character study. Stripped to the essentials and isolated from society, facades are lowered and pure character emerges, embodied in a finale that may be one of bravest dramatic gambits of recent American cinema.
Limbo is mired in frustrated potential and meaningless complication. The loose weave of characters and easy rhythms are still there, but Sayles the storyteller has let his concerns wander all over the map. For all the professionalism of his recent films, he's confused well-meaning with well-made, and left the audience hanging in the narrative limbo of his own frayed tales.