Limbo

on June 04, 1999 by Wade Major
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   At first glance, "Limbo" seems to be precisely the kind of ferociously independent and passionately original film one would expect from the reigning king of independent cinema, John Sayles. In the tradition of "City of Hope," "Passion Fish," "Lone Star," "The Secret of Roan Inish" and "Men With Guns", the director's latest is yet another unconventional character study set in an exotic, distinctive locale--in this case a remote, pastoral Alaskan settlement.
   Similarities to Sayles' previous efforts, however, abruptly end there.
   For "Limbo" takes added risks that may surprise even the most ardent Sayles admirers--risks that demand as much of the audience as the audience is likely to demand of the film.
   For the better part of its first half, "Limbo" is a straightforward ensemble piece, painting a portrait of a rural village struggling to find middle ground between the economic need for change and the fervent desire of its citizens to keep things as they've always been. As the story progresses, three players emerge more forcefully from the fray--fisherman-turned-handyman Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), nightclub singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Donna's troubled teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The relationships that evolve between these three, and the residual effect of their respective histories, is, ultimately, the dramatic engine that drives "Limbo" to its powerful, provocative conclusion. It is a journey that is at once exhilarating and frightening--at times even alarming. Sayles' flagrant disregard for convention and the so-called "rules" of screen storytelling have run afoul of traditionalists in the past, and "Limbo" is no different. Far from
   possessing any kind of familiar "act" structure, the film ebbs and flows in harmony with the emotions of its characters, making its eventual outcome increasingly unpredictable as events progress.
   For some, the task of fully following such an unusual story may seem unduly challenging--Sayles has provided no convenient signposts or escape hatches to help ease his audience through his story's pricklier aspects. Viewers will need to concentrate, possibly even work a bit at the enigmatic narrative to fully appreciate its scope and implications. Still, audiences need not dig too deeply to fully appreciate, at the very least, the craft of the film. Strathairn and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, both frequent Sayles collaborators, produce typically excellent work, as does Mastrantonio, who sings all of her own songs.
   The film's most shining revelation, however, is 19-year-old Martinez--briefly seen in "Lone Star"--a gifted young actress who understands acutely that in "Limbo," what the audience does not see, hear or even comprehend is often more important than what they do.    Starring Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson and Casey Siemaszko. Directed and written by John Sayles. Produced by Maggie Renzi. A Screen Gems release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 126 min.
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