By Indiewire | Indiewire June 18, 1999 at 2:0AM
REVIEW: A "Limbo" of its Own: Sayles Straddles Two Worlds
by Danny Lorber
John Sayles' new film "Limbo" initially seems exactly the type of character driven independently minded work we'd expect from this truly maverick filmmaker. Like many of Sayles film's -- "City of Hope," "Passion Fish," "Lone Star," "The Secret of Roan Inish" and "Men With Guns" - "Limbo" takes place in an unconventional locale; this time it's a remote Alaskan settlement and much of its focus is placed on the societal conflicts of the region's citizens. Yet "Limbo" quickly and surprisingly turns into an unusual exercise for Sayles, as a frantic narrative situation emerges, and the characters face problems that transcend personal sadness and community conflict.
"Limbo" begins as an ensemble piece, painting a portrait of a rural village struggling to find middle ground between the economic need for change and the passionate desire of its citizens to keep things as they've always been. As the story progresses, three characters emerge from the fray--fisherman-turned-handyman Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), nightclub singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Donna's troubled teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The relationships that evolve between these three, and the residual effect of their respective histories, is what drives "Limbo."
Before we know what's hit us, however, "Limbo" turns into another movie all together - a sort of adventure film. As the said characters find themselves stuck on a remote island, without food or materials, they are hoping that not only help finds them, but also that some high level drug dealers who murdered Joe's brother don't find them either. The film's strange progression, from a strictly "Sayles-ian" character piece, to something that resembles a "lost in the woods" film, is a little hard to swallow. Sayles, it seems, is obviously making the wrong narrative choice. His subtle material is completely compelling, why does he have to spruce it up?
Quickly, however, we are reminded of Sayles eloquence in story telling, and the situation in the woods becomes something quite lyrical on its own terms. The meaning of "Limbo" becomes a little more pragmatic for the characters, but not fully - the film is strong on ambiguity. We're constantly surprised by the characters' actions; it seems they know about as much about their own emotional state than we do.
Still, "Limbo" would have been better served expanding on the mood that's created in its first half. Sayles has provided us with fascinating relationship dynamics between his characters. Though it's admirable that Sayles shows so much ambition to change his style and to give his film such a weight of unpredictability, he doesn't really succeed at matching the depth of the film's first half.
Despite the enigmatic narrative, there's palpable successes here, most notably the performances from Strathairn , Mastrantonio and 19-year-old Vanessa Martinez. Also worth taking note of is the handsome work of cinematographer and long time Sayles collaborator Haskell Wexler. He captures the danger and beauty of Alaska in nearly every shot.
As many you have heard by now, or even seen for yourself, "Limbo's" ending is about as unconventional as they come -- it leaves the audience to do all the work. We are used to easy answers in our movies, we are used to being told what happens - most of us don't want to bother with figuring out things for ourselves. Frankly, I was frustrated by "Limbo's" last shot - at least in narrative terms (it's a beauty to see). It seems to me that when an audience invests two hours into your story, it's a bit unfair to leave that audience with an utterly unresolved narrative. Still, Sayles has never been known as one to follow the rules. He works by the beat of his own drum - a real deal independent - a refreshing anomaly in the current world of movies.