Limbo (1999)

Limbo posterStarring David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Kris Kristofferson, Casey Siemaszko, Vanessa Martinez.
Written and directed by John Sayles.

Grade: B-

Review by Jeff Vorndam.

Limbo, the new movie from John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Men with Guns), opens with a wedding reception. As in Wild Reeds, the reception is simply a plot device to introduce you to the characters all at once. However, most of the characters introduced in these early scenes are later abandoned, and their stories seem trotted out only for local colour and background noise. One particularly cumbersome plot convention is the way in which Joe Gastineau's (David Strathairn) unhappy past is repeatedly brought up and reminisced ruefully, as if the locals have nothing better to talk about. Its only bearing on the story is to explain Joe's grim outlook--faced with dire circumstances he is appropriately bleak--and to provide a reason for Kris Kristofferson's character to exist.

The plot shakedown is this: Donna (Mastrantonio) and her daughter Noelle (Martinez) are spending a year up in Alaska while Donna gigs at a local nightclub. Donna has stumbled from one unfortunate relationship to another, and Noelle is surly and petulant like all good movie teenagers are. There are several breaks in the film to show us that Mastrantonio has a damn fine voice, and I wonder why I've never heard her sing before in a movie. Donna and Joe get to know each other and slowly begin a romance (this part of the film was handled well, as these two actors have expressive faces that convey their downtrodden pasts and tentative hopes better than any dialogue could). Out of the blue comes Joe's half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) with a sketchy expedition upriver. For some reason, he lets Joe take Donna and Noelle along. Then the movie drops everything and drastically changes into something resembling The Edge more than Lone Star.

The screenplay Limbo's downfall. Trust me, I'm one of Sayles' biggest fans, and this is a disappointment. I don't think the 125 minutes leading up to the ending deserved the last shot of the film. My problem with Limbo is basically with the story. The acting is first-rate, and Haskell Wexler's cinematography makes this the best-looking John Sayles film, but I'm considering redubbing him John Stayles because the first half of the movie is a poorly rendered retread of his previous work. It's not as careful to avoid stereotypes, it's clumsily edited, and ultimately it serves no real purpose. The second half is an artificial construction - but unlike Men With Guns, which I thought benefitted from its mystical journey milieu, Limbo's story stalls, and its message is forced out like a grapefruit through a keyhole. I don't mind the concept of the ending--in fact, the film would be even more forgettable without it. It's just that Sayles has little to say but teases it out over two hours.

Note: Jeff later changed his rating for this film from a B- to a C+.

Review © June 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © 1998 Columbia Tristar Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

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