'Limbo' much more than a survival adventure

July 02, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Director John Sayles builds an exquisite sense of tension in "Limbo," a potent story of intimacy, risk and desperation set in contemporary Alaska.

Sayles' detractors will find many of the same shortcomings as they have in previous films: "Limbo" is talky at times, and some of its plotting is contrived. But for his admirers, Sayles' 12th film will prove to be another fascinating exploration of such themes as: the relationship between people and their environment, the ecology of communities and, above all, the power of narrative to give shape and sense to experience. And in "Limbo" he goes into unfamiliar territory as well, taking filmgoers on a frightening journey to the heart of human vulnerability.

David Strathairn plays Joe Gastineau, a fisherman living in the fictional town of Port Henry. A handyman at a local guest lodge, Joe hasn't fished in several years, since his too-full boat sank, taking two of his friends with it. Still traumatized and somewhat ostracized by the tiny community, Joe haunts the town with almost ghostly wistfulness until he meets Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a spirited lounge singer whose daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) happens to work with him.

After breaking up with her bandmate boyfriend by singing "Better Off Without You" while entertaining at a wedding, Donna sets her sights on the diffident Joe, who doesn't know quite what to make of her impulsiveness. Making matters more awkward, Noelle has been nursing a secret crush on him and is mortified when he turns out to be her mother's new beau.

As in Sayles' recent film "Lone Star," "Limbo" begins by following several relationships within the context of some emblematic place -- in this case the American frontier. Sayles, who approaches his film locations with an anthropologist's sensitivity and a reporter's zeal, gives the audience a primer on contemporary issues in Alaska through his characteristic ensemble of overlapping characters. We meet soon-to-be-unemployed cannery workers; the real estate developer who wants to scar the shoreline; the cruise boat executive who wants the coast to remain pristine; and the rogues who flee to Alaska only to find that now they're "local color" for the tourist trade.

And Sayles manages to find some humor when the cultures collide. At one point one of the transplanted urbanites who run the lodge watches a fisherman calmly shoot a halibut and says with horror that "it was like a gangland execution."

But midway through what looks like a typical Sayles movie, the director takes Joe, Donna and Noelle on a journey that will plunge them into more primal issues. Part survival adventure and, because it's Sayles, part allegory, "Limbo" turns into a harrowing drama that fairly explodes with the emotions of its characters.

With the help of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Sayles has drawn a magnificent portrait of Alaska, starting with the vistas and waterscapes familiar to the lower 48 and, as the story becomes more sinister, evoking its sense of mystery and monumental scale.

But all of this recedes quickly once Sayles strands his three main characters on a deserted island. This is when the main themes of "Limbo" -- of risk, the illusion of risk and the epic difficulty of human intimacy -- come to the fore.

Sayles should be congratulated if only for giving Strathairn a starring role; this fascinating, underused actor lends enormous credibility and sympathy to his unreadable character. Mastrantonio plays the perpetually optimistic Donna with a game, good-natured grace (viewers may be surprised that she sings her own songs here), but it's Strathairn who inhabits "Limbo's" emotional center.

Actually, the emotional center lies not in any one person, but in their stories -- the stories they tell themselves and each other. As much as anything else, "Limbo" is a celebration of narrative forms. Tall tales, gossip, legends and lies weave in and out of the movie, as well as confession, by way of an old diary found on the island. This dusty journal provides the spookiest and most emotionally searing moments of "Limbo," as the story of one family's demise blurs into the inner life of an unhappy teen-age girl.

After bringing "Limbo" to an excruciating climax, Sayles ends on an ambiguous note, forcing filmgoers to confront the story they've been imposing on the characters. The gambit will prove infuriating to some, but for those willing to join Sayles on this journey, his attempt to take narrative one step further will be a potent and surprisingly moving shot in the arm.

`Limbo'

Starring David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez

Directed by John Sayles

Rated R (language)

Running time 126 minutes

Released by Screen Gems

Sun score * * *

Pub Date: 7/02/99

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