Let the record show that Limbo is the twelfth feature film John Sayles has made as a writer and director, following Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, Baby It’s You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star and Men With Guns. The combined budgets of those films couldn’t keep George Lucas in special effects for a week. But what ornery, ambitious, accomplished films they are. Along with John Cassavetes, Sayles helped to define the renegade spirit of independent film. He goes his own way, ignoring those critics who bitch that his handling of the camera lags behind his Oscar-nominated skill with a script. Translation: Sayles; the anti-Michael Bay, isn’t a flash junkie. So he’ll never make his own Armageddon. He’ll live. So will we.
Sayles started as a novelist and short-story writer; he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 1983. But the term that fits him best is an old-fashioned one: storyteller. He’s a master at weaving tales about people in groups – families, teams, communities, races, religions – and using those groups the way a novelist does: to elucidate character.
Sayles sets Limbo in Alaska, with all its roiling expanse and without skipping the environmental damage hidden from tourists. Like Old West pioneers, the people who settle in today’s Alaska are looking to hide or to start over in a place where civilization and the wilderness forge a precarious truce. Take handyman Joe Gastineau, an ex-fisherman played with bruised hope and rugged dignity by Sayles regular David Strathairn, a superb actor in peak form. Joe has sworn off the sea; he harbors guilt about a boating accident twenty-five years ago that resulted in the drowning of two friends. Now he’s inching his way back to the boats, ostensibly to help his half-brother, Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), but mostly to risk another shot at living.
It seems appropriate that Joe hooks up with Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a saloon singer sidetracked by bad choices in men and career moves. Her teenage daughter, Noelle (the excellent Vanessa Martinez), resents being dragged to Godforsaken corners of the globe to watch her single mother screw up again. Mastrantonio, one of the great, underused talents in movies, gives Donna a hard-edged sexiness that softens into fragile longing when she sings. With Joe, Donna thinks she may have found someone who won’t make her music a lie.
These three vulnerable characters walk a minefield of volatile feelings as they take what Donna thinks is a pleasure cruise on Bobby’s boat, only to find their fate hanging in the balance. The film’s final third starts with violence and ends with shocking abruptness. Taking shelter on a deserted island, Joe, Donna and Noelle reveal secrets about themselves that draw them together as menace closes in. In suspense terms, Sayles leaves his audience in limbo. Manipulative? Maybe. Just who is that mysterious pilot played by Kris Kristofferson? But in human terms, Sayles leaves no doubt about the emotional fate of his characters. Every detail, from the expert camera work of Haskell Wexler to the resonant kick of the Bruce Springsteen song “Lift Me Up,” amounts to a haunting and hypnotic spellbinder that marks another advance for Sayles and his longtime producer and companion, Maggie Renzi. Limbo is vital personal filmmaking from a world-class practitioner of the art.