Limbo is a lousy place to leave an audience.
Place is never a mere setting for John Sayles. After exploring the sweltering bayou country in Passion Fish and the Mexican culture in Lone Star, he now takes on an Alaskan fishing town in Limbo. Armed with the sensibilities of a respectful outsider, he moves carefully through the layers of history and culture that make a place a living thing, wrapping it in his protective embrace while explaining its vulnerability.
In Limbo, the town of Juneau, with its flavor of fish, fur, and salmon oil, is threatened by insensitive opportunists. A successful timber executive, who would clear-cut the interior, leaving the periphery for tourists, announces, "Think of Alaska as one big theme park." The issues are framed: environment versus entrepreneurs, fishing versus tourism. But Sayles quickly trips by drawing his unconvincing villains in caricature.
Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), boatbuilder, is a man with a secret. Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), itinerant singer, is a loser. Their neediness brings them together in the Golden Nugget, where he winds down with a beer while she sings. They are accompanied by Donna's daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), who is sunk in a well of sullen disappointment in her mother.
These ordinary lives unfold in the shadow of an extraordinary landscape. If life in Alaska is hard and dangerous, it is also restorative and encouraging of new beginnings. Climbing, fishing, weather, death-the elements are hostile and bigger here than in the lower U.S. Of the fishing that was once his profession Joe says, "Everything else is secondhand." This is a John Sayles's world of good guys versus bad, of transcendent natural values under attack by obvious villains. But then he goes one step too far.
In a nearly laughable turn of events, Joe's wretchedly cocky brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), arrives in a white monster of a boat, bringing a plot twist that is as unexpected as it is wrong for the film. The carefully nurtured Alaskan mood is shattered; the implausible turns impossible. The crisis plunges our family trio into the frigid water, where they swim toward shore through the ice floes. Once there, they survive drenching rains and cold without dry clothes, blankets, or food. Grist for the gossip mill at the Golden Nugget maybe, but the movie is fatally wounded, undermined by the loss of authenticity and by scenes of self-mutilation and drug running that belong in some other movie.
In this now grim survival tale, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn manage to build two consistently credible characters even after the script betrays them. To make matters worse, Mr. Sayles plays a cheap trick on his actors and the audience. He has written himself into an ending where any conclusion would be unacceptable. For the audience, the movie has begun and ended in limbo, "a place or state," as it says in the hype, "of arrested possibilities." Limbo is a lousy place to leave an audience.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 495
Studio : Screen Gems
Rating : R
Running time : 2h7m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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