In John Sayles's Limbo, which is set amid the rough-and-tumble of southeast Alaska, an ex-salmon fisherman with guilty memories (David Strathairn), an itinerant lounge singer with a lousy voice (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and the singer's melancholy teenage daughter (newcomer Vanessa Martinez) become stranded, Robinson Crusoe-style, on a remote island. This thrown-together family must forage for food, share inadequate clothing and put up with each other in a desperate situation. Winter is coming, and there's no guarantee some passing aviator will catch sight of their signal fire before the snows fly.
Oh, and a pair of ruthless drug dealers might be coming back to kill them.
All this happens during the second hour we spend in Limbo. The first, set in a tough town called Port Henry, is devoted to telling us, among other things, that fish drown in air while people drown in water (the metaphorical value of which never escapes the filmmaker), that singing and writing can free the soul and that any number of Alaskan fish canneries and pulp mills have closed in the continuing tug-of-war between industry and tourism. We also learn (this just in!) that Alaska is America's "last frontier" -- that the rugged boat captains and mercenary bush pilots and slippery land rapists who inhabit the place are constantly reinventing themselves according to need and whim. To survive in this harsh, beautiful land, you must be adaptable. Otherwise, like Sayles's symbolic salmon dying in their spawning pools, you might "wear out and give up."
Anything else we need to know? Not much. With the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist and the intellectual vigor of a grad student in philosophy, John Sayles gives us survivalism -- emotional and physical -- with a capital S, set on what he sees as the end of the earth. Most of us are caught in limbo, the movie says, between a past life and a future one, between adolescence and adulthood, between alienation and love. Those who don't have the courage to move forward drown in their regret. Even places can find themselves in limbo. Places like Alaska, where the quick-buck artist knocks heads with the artisan.
Does all this sound vaguely familiar? No doubt it does, especially if you caught David Mamet's eerily similar meditation on north country survival, The Edge, or any of a dozen recent movies, from Saving Private Ryan to Boogie Nights, in which ad hoc families struggle against powerful forces. Limbo extends Sayles's concern with community, which began two decades ago with the reunion of ex-radicals in Return of the Secaucus Seven and reached its peak with the bond of striking coal miners in Matewan. It also suggests every lost-in-the-wilderness movie since Jack London took a wrong turn in the woods.
The elemental struggles with Nature and Evil that enlivened movies from Deliverance to River Wild are recapitulated here, but in the same blunt instructional tone that characterizes many of Sayles's weaker films. In Eight Men Out, for instance, we came to understand that corruption, in the World Series and elsewhere, is a bad thing; in City of Hope we found that urban crime can devastate lives even far from the scene. In Limbo we learn that people and fish both suffocate if removed from their natural habitats and that entire states can find themselves in oblivion. Eager to score brownie points with the Alaskan whole-earth set, Sayles seems intent on playing sociologist while mucking around in psychological tensions. That means he sometimes leaves drama on the doorstep.
Certainly, he seemed a lot more comfortable in some of the other "exotic" locales where he has shot previous films: the coalfields of West Virginia, the Louisiana bayou (Passion Fish) and the flea-bitten Texas border town that served as the setting for his best work to date, Lone Star.
There are some things to like in Limbo, including a contemplative energy you won't find in the summer blockbusters and terrific performances by Martinez (who played young Pilar in Lone Star) as the alienated teenager and wry Kris Kristofferson as Smilin' Jack, the seedy bush pilot who turns out to be the story's moral pivot. But Sayles's innate need to lecture and his peculiar casting choices leave something to be desired.
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The rather urbane Strathairn, an old pal who has appeared in six previous Sayles movies, comes off no better as an old salt (albeit with a college education) than, say, David Niven might. It's hard to imagine that mild Joe Gastineau has ever gotten his hands dirty, much less hauled huge haddock over the gunwales of his boat or suffered through a maritime disaster in which two friends died.
It's even harder to believe that he'd go for Mastrantonio's neurotic Donna, whose taste in men is usually no better than her vocal chords. Apparently the otherwise competent star of The Color of Money and Class Action told Sayles that she was initially "trained as a singer." While her training did not seem to include phrasing or intonation, Sayles rewrote the character as a singer, and Mastrantonio's Donna De Angelo belts out tune after sappy tune. No wonder the mental illness, suicide and alcoholism rates are so high up in the 49th state: If this is what locals must endure in their nightclubs, there's not much to live for.
In the end, Sayles (ever the democrat) leaves us in limbo, too: We are left to decide whether our trio of newly bonded outcasts gets rescued or shot to death. But given a choice between knocking off Donna or listening to her mangle another Tom Waits song, I know which way I'd go.
Directed by John Sayles. With David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez and Kris Kristofferson.