Posted: 08/10/1999




by Del Harvey

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A couple of decades ago Jimmy Cliff sang “Sitting right here in limbo, waiting for the dice to roll.” The feeling of waiting for your life to begin again is becoming more universal in a world where the individual shrinks from the landscape as the population explodes exponentially. In LIMBO, John Sayles captures this peculiar dislocation in subtle shades of anxiety and angst, with an edge of suspense and a surprising ending that is both ingenious and frustrating.

Mr. Sayles’ films take the time to develop characters and plot in a manner largely ignored by most contemporary filmmakers, which ultimately is the reason he has been this country’s most marketable independent, and most ignored by the PR departments at large movie studios. Sayles’ films tend to be “old fashioned” because they rely so heavily upon plot and character development rather than explosions, pretty faces, or hi-tech special effects.

One of his favorite actors, David Straithairn, can easily be compared to Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, actors of another era who would be totally inappropriate in many contemporary films. Straithairn and Sayles are a classic actor/director team, totally in sync with each other, just as Stewart and Hitchcock were, or John Wayne and John Ford. The only reason Mr. Straithairn is not a bigger star is because of the fickle tastes of the larger viewing public.

However, in spite of the general viewing public’s gross appetite for mindless violence and single-minded plotlines, there remains a sizable audience that wants and often craves a story with substance, as well as characters to believe in. Sayles is but one of a few directors capable of doing this (Jane Campion, The Coen Brothers, Gillian Armstrong are but a few others—all basically independents, as well).

Recently, one of the film industry’s most celebrated auteurs, Stanley Kubrick, passed away after completing his last film, EYES WIDE SHUT. The newspapers and television reporting about his death described him as an “auteur,” and lamented that Mr. Kubrick was the very last one of these rogue “writer-producer-directors” working in the industry. While he was certainly a master of this singular arena, Kubrick was not the only working auteur in the business. But unfortunately, Sayles has not received the recognition he deserves for turning out a number of very fine films which he has written, produced, and directed. Often he has also performed quite well in his own films as a supporting character.

His newest film, LIMBO is a tale of lost people bumping into each other and finding they share common patterns, if not common goals. David Straithairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio play characters who give the appearance of great emotional strength, but it’s really just for show. This illusion falls away quickly as their pasts are revealed in barroom dialogues and neighborhood banter, and in several of Straithairn’s nightmares. We soon find out that these characters are driven by their desire to bond with another human being, even though they have been hurt before. Or perhaps they just want to hear about another person’s problems to distract them from their own.

Mastrantonio plays a single mom and a lounge singer. Strathairn works as a handyman for the town’s resident lesbian couple, who also run a catering business where Mastrantonio’s teenaged daughter works. The daughter, played by Vanessa Martinez, has developed a schoolgirl crush on Straitharin’s character, and she becomes quite disturbed when he meets her mom and their relationship blossoms. Mom is so wrapped up in her own little world that she cannot see, or cannot accept, the warning signs of self-loathing her own daughter exhibits once the two main characters collide.

The whole scene tilts awkwardly and disastrously when Straithairn’s half-brother appears with a request for Straithairn to pilot his boat further up the Alaskan coast under the pretense of meeting clients. Straithairn brings Mastrantonio and Martinez along for the ride, thinking this will be a little harmless fun. Soon their boat is boarded by strangers who kill the half-brother for some drug deal he mismanaged. Our trio escapes to a nearby island where there is no escape. The drug dealing killers soon leave, knowing there is no escape, and our trio attempts to survive in a half-destroyed cabin in the cold Alaska autumn, far from any semblance of civilization.

Truly in limbo, they burn fires on the beach in hopes of some errant plane or ship spotting them. Around the campfire at night the daughter, Martinez, reads from an old journal she’s found in a pile of scrap in one corner of the cabin. As the girl grows weak and sick from fatigue and exposure, the story she tells seems to mirror the hopelessness and sense of abandon they all share. Before long the adults realize that the journal was only partially begun, and that the daughter has been making up this story as she goes along. She is telling her mother about the loss and abandon she has felt for a very long time; about her own feelings of being suspended in limbo before they ever landed on the island.

In addition to fine performances by Straithairn, Mastrantonio, and Martinez, Kris Kristofferson also makes a brief, but memorable appearance.

LIMBO has an ending that is uniquely daring, and may put some people off. I found the ending to be both profound and appropriate for the story and for the characters, who would eventually fade into the darkness of the empty screen were it not for the impact of the film’s conclusion.

An auteur and a master storyteller, Sayles has delivered an extremely compelling tale. LIMBO proves once again this filmmaker’s understanding of the film and the human spirit. This film is definitely worth catching at the local movie box.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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