Limbo (1999)

D: John Sayles
S: David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Characteristically thoughtful and thought-provoking film from writer, director, and editor John Sayles which has gained some notoriety for its 'surprise' ending, but is a genuinely interesting contemporary American film. The film is a meditation on fear, or perhaps apprehension, centring on the relationships between disparate characters in a dying Alaskan town, all of whom seem to share a condition of uncertainty about their lives and their future. Rather like in The Wages of Fear, the first half of this film is concerned with establishing a condition of desperation, the second is a sort of catharsis in which the stakes are upped and the threats become less cerebral. As it opens, amid beautifully photographed landscapes (shot by veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler), images of plant closings and disenfranchised workers are juxtaposed with a seemingly endless stream of tourists being led around the wonders of historic Alsaka by vapid tour guides. At a socialite wedding, local businessmen discuss the commodification of the great outdoors and propose to turn Alaska into a giant theme park where danger is contained and controlled to give people the illusion of fear without the threat to life. The quality of life itself is in question here. The town seems gripped by anxiety and premonitions of death. Local workers discuss friends taken by the sea or who have given up on life. A former fisherman battles with a pair of Seattle Lesbian lawyers to regain control of his boat. As plates of elaborate fish dinners are served in restaurants, the local Salmon cannery goes through its final hours with a ceremonial disinfecting which wipes away its past, its present, and its future. Faint rays of hope come in the form of the beginning of a nervous romance between handyman David Strathairn (L.A. Confidential) and lounge singer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, both of whom have troubled pasts and ambivalent presents.

Things take an abrupt turn into adventure thriller in the second half as for reasons best left to a viewing, they and Mastrantonio's equally troubled teenage daughter Vanessa Martinez find themselves stranded on an uninhabited island pursued by malevolent forces. It sounds like a sudden shift of pace, but Sayles handles it beautifully. The second half becomes an extrapolation of the themes and conflicts established in the early stages, and as real danger presses down upon the trio, they face both fear and themselves in mostly understated and restrained ways atypical of the genre but perfectly in tune with the rest of the movie. Male/Female and Mother/Daughter conflicts familiar from a variety of other films are played out in an unusual setting which allows Sayles to relate them to wider concepts of American society. The end of great outdoors, the working man's place in the modern world, and the slow death of old fashioned heroism are just some of the ideas which inform the action on this level, and there are even more which arise when the interpersonal drama is in focus, with a reasonable balance between emphasis on male and female points of view. It's the dark side of Six Days, Seven Nights with a touch of Lord of the Flies, and Sayles adds layers of psychological and emotional tension as the film moves towards its controversial finale where Sayles turns the tables on the audience and leaves them in a state of incertitude which subverts narrative convention and yet resolves the thematic and character issues raised.

On the level of performance, Strathairn is quietly commanding as the man whose calm and obliging nature has Mastrantonio conclude he's "either a nice guy who lives alone, or a serial killer." Mastrantonio herself seems constantly on edge yet convincingly portrays a combination of strength and vulnerability which makes her bad judgment and inability to relate to her daughter understandable and sympathetic. Martinez has a strong character of her own which Sayles reveals gradually. She only comes to the fore in the latter stages as her gift for creativity, teenage angst, and her various fears battle with an advancing fever and the possibility of death by starvation, exposure, or violence. It is very much Sayles' show however, and in his three roles as writer, director, and editor, he is in a strong position to control the delicate sense of precarious balance which gives the film its power.

Though the pace is slow and the pleasures mostly intellectual, Limbo is quite a watchable film which should appeal to fans of the director and cast. It will not win many casual viewers, but it is, in its own way, quite a daring film which audiences may find an unexpected treat in a world of predetermined generic narratives and hi-octane action pics. It's not as gripping as some of Sayles' other films (Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish), but it is similarly understated and quietly effective. It is unlikely to win legions of admirers, but it is worth seeing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.