Limbo begins like no previous John Sayles film. Abstract, eerie shots of water and fish are accompanied by unsettling music, as letters very slowly spell out the title. It is an atmospheric, suggestive prologue that promises a new, creative vigour from a director whose work in recent years (such as Lone Star, 1996) has often disappointed.
Limbo has an unusual, two-part construction. The first part sketches life in a small, Alaskan town. Sayles takes an anti-Northern Exposure approach: instead of quirky humour and a bunch of lovable eccentrics, we note the solitude, boredom and suppressed anger of most residents.
From this mosaic of town life, three particular characters emerge. Joe (David Strathairn) is a quiet, sensitive guy with a dark past that has made him unpopular in the community. Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a singer and free spirit, on the rebound after a string of bad relationships. Her daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), is a sullen, withdrawn teen given to bouts of idle self-mutilation.
There is deliberately only one strong moment of plot in Limbo – and it happens mysteriously, off screen. The payback arising from a shady drug deal botched by Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) ends up casting Joe, Donna and Noelle off a boat, into the water, and onto a completely deserted island. Here, the characters' lives – and, in a way, the film itself – start over from scratch.
There are echoes of many other movies in Limbo. The loose, floating portrait of a small community recalls Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune (1999). The way the destinies of the lonely characters intersect is reminiscent of Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998). There is a touch of John Cassavetes as the three main protagonists, cut off from society, must reinvent their ways of coping with, relating to and understanding each other.
But this is not a film bent on homage or pastiche. Limbo does not ape Altman's jazzy textures, Solondz's ironic, sitcom blandness or Cassavetes' wildness. Paradoxically, it is Sayles' customary liability as a director – his artlessness with cinema language – that makes Limbo, ultimately, a unique and arresting experiment.
Normally, Sayles' folksy simplicity as a filmmaker is irritating; here, he pushes his blank mode in the direction of a European-style minimalism. Detached from any popular genre, Limbo – a little in the manner of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Carl Dreyer's Gertrud (1964) – is devoted to leeching its story of any vulgar suspense or ornamentation, and moving towards a kind of absolute purity.
Gradually, the characters settle into their strange, timeless idyll on the deserted island. It could almost be an icy, Alaskan staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest: Sayles concentrates with ever greater intensity on faces, words, flashes of revelation, as the trio (like the film itself) reaches a point of emotional nakedness or transparency. Sayles has never crafted a better, more expressive scene than that in which Noelle, her face half-illuminated, reads from a diary found in their cabin.
These minimalist means allow Sayles to question the very nature of storytelling itself – a conceptual level hitherto undetectable in his work. Once the 'what happens next?' mechanism driving most narratives is switched off, and the film explores its suspended, limbo state, we become aware that a neat resolution of any sort (happy or otherwise) is a mere contrivance. The shock ending – a '70s-style gesture which seems to overly preoccupy many viewers and reviewers – merely caps off this line of reflection.
Limbo is an ambitious and coherent piece, but there are false notes along the way. Several sequences in which montages of physical activity are accompanied by songs are lazy time-fillers. The attempts at audience-pleasing humour are facile and rather forced. The script, prone to hammer home its points, contains a few too many references to risk, prediction, and the struggle between optimism and pessimism.
Sayles' work with his actors is also a mixed blessing. Strathairn, a veteran of Sayles' movies, fits perfectly into this film's understated world. Martinez and Kris Kristofferson (both from Lone Star) give a soulfulness and presence to fairly simple roles. Mastrantonio is hit-and-miss: the unevenness of her performance, swinging between subtlety and bathos, raises doubt about the value of Sayles' no-rehearsal method of direction.
In the end, Limbo is somewhat defeated by its own ambition. Sayles has spoken of wanting to make a film that takes risks and faces uncertainties, as his characters do. But Sayles – who economically, sometimes mechanically shoots what he writes and then cuts what he shoots – is not a director who truly risks his material in the manner of an Emir Kusturica or a Maurice Pialat. His cinema still lacks spontaneity, energy and warmth.
But there are enough elements of surprise and invention in Limbo to warrant a renewed interest in his prolific career.
© Adrian Martin September 1999