This review contains some plot spoilers.
In a small town in Alaska, Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn) is a fisherman haunted by an accident at sea several years before, in which two men died. Donna DeAngelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a nightclub singer with a disastrous string of relationships behind her and a resentful teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) in tow, comes into town and into Joe’s life. A romance develops between them. Then Joe’s feckless brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) arrives. But he’s brought trouble with him, and this comes to a head when a boating trip ends up with Bobby dead and Joe, Donna and Noelle stranded on a remote island and having to struggle to survive…
From 1980’s The Return of the Secaucus 7 onwards, John Sayles has made films outside the studio system, often using mainstream writing and script-doctoring assignments to finance his independent work. While there’s no doubting the quality of his work and his influence on an entire subsequent generation of independent filmmakers, there’s a sense that fashion is slowly turning against him. (His 2003 film Casa de los Babys, is still awaiting release in the UK as I write this in August 2004.) There tends to be a sense that his work is worthy and Good For You, but not all that exciting. I will suggest that Sayles’s work is primarily a writer’s and actor’s director. He’s certainly grown in visual flair since his earliest 16mm-shot films, to the point where cinematographers of the calibre of Haskell Wexler will work with him, as he did on Matewan and Limbo. I’d also suggest that one key to the success of Limbo is the management of a sharp shift in tone just over the halfway mark, as much a director’s achievement as it is a writer’s. And Sayles’s direction has always been for the most part self-effacing. But his work shouldn’t be overlooked. Limbo is an ambitious, structurally audacious film that ranks among his best.
It begins almost in documentary style, with a brief depiction of the salmon trade on which the town’s economy depends. The film continues as a Robert Altmanesque ensemble piece, where we are introduced to a wide range of characters and their interrelationships. Gradually, the characters of Joe and Donna come to the forefront, and for just over an hour we see a rare thing for the movies develop: a romance between two middle-aged people, both carrying past baggage and hurt. We also meet Jack Johansson (Kris Kristofferson), who has a history with Joe as his brother died in Joe’s boating accident. Jack’s character and motivation are vital to the film’s ending, of which more later.
Then Bobby arrives, followed by his fatal encounter with a couple of bad guys on a boat. The remainder of the film is virtually a three-hander between Joe, Donna and Noelle as they struggle to survive on a remote island. Noelle finds an old diary belonging to a young girl and spends many of the evenings reading it out – but it too is not what it seems at first.
And there’s the ending. I guarantee you this will divide audiences like nothing else. Sayles has prepared us in a way: “limbo” is defined as “a condition of unknowable outcome” with no end to it, unlike purgatory. Sayles provides an ending that leaves open two possible outcomes. You may find this the final bold stroke in this movie, or it may come across as an infuriating lapse of storytelling responsibility in denying us any form of closure. I’m in the former camp, but I can well understand that many people will dislike this ending intensely.
Up to that point, there’s much to enjoy. Sayles’s dialogue has always been a strong point, and it effortlessly conveys character while being a pleasure to listen to. Strathairn (a Sayles regular since Secaucus 7, and who unlike many Hollywood actors genuinely looks like a working man) and Mastrantonio (who, now past forty, has reached a point where decent roles for women are hard to come by) give commanding performances, and Vanessa Martinez is just as good. Kristofferson and Siemaszko are solid in smaller roles. Sayles’s sense of place and feeling for the structure of a community are as acute as ever.
Although it says “1.85:1” on the packaging, Columbia TriStar’s anamorphic transfer of Limbo has thin black masking on all four sides of the 16:9 frame, giving a ratio of 1.78:1. No problems at all with the picture quality though. Wexler’s camerawork positively glows, and the transfer copes ably with quite a few day-for-night sequences and some scenes towards the end lit only by a campfire. I didn’t spot any obvious flaws, the colours are rich, blacks solid and shadow detail fine, so top marks.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, both in the original English and a German dubbed version. This isn’t a flashy sound mix and doesn’t need to be, as the film is heavily dependent on dialogue. There are quite a few ambient sound effects however, and the music, though sparingly used, comes across well. The DVD is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4 and has twenty-eight chapter stops.
The main extra is a Sayles commentary, and it’s an engaging listen if a little slanted towards technical details. He also defends the film’s ending, which for him is the only right one. You can understand his reasoning, even if you dislike the result. The remaining extras include a lengthy (2:30) US theatrical trailer. You can see how a film like this would be a hard sell, and the trailer pitches it as someway between thriller and arthouse movie. The trailer is 4:3 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track and Dutch and German subtitle options. There isn’t a great deal of music in this film: Mason Daring’s score is sparing and there are some songs, many sung by Mastrantonio. There’s also “Lift Me Up” over the end credits, sung falsetto by Bruce Springsteen. However, the DVD producers have provided us with the opportunity to listen to the score in isolation (in Dolby Digital 5.1) with six jump-to highlights. Finally, there are biographies and filmographies for Sayles, Strathairn and Mastrantonio.
Limbo is a must-see for fans of Sayles’s work in particular, and anyone who likes bold, ambitious cinema. Other people may wish to proceed with caution though. Columbia’s DVD has excellent picture and sound, and a fine extra in Sayles’s commentary, and is well worth picking up, especially as it can be found quite inexpensively.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:10:21