John Sayles' new film Limbo
is half a great movie -- specifically, the first half. It is here that we find Sayles at the top of his game, telling a story about individuals in under-explored pockets of American life who are as much motivated by social and economic dynamics as by personal demons and ambitions. Whether Sayles chooses for his settings the off-ramps of New Jersey (City of Hope; Baby, It's You),
the backwaters of Louisiana (Passion Fish),
the border culture of Texas (Lone Star),
or the last American frontier as he does in Limbo,
Sayles' movies are always about the environments that inhabit his characters as well as the characters who inhabit these environments. For Joe Gastineau (Strathairn) and Donna De Angelo (Mastrantonio), Alaska is a state of limbo. Each character is looking not for the proverbial last chance, but for a moment of grace in which the weight of past baggage will lift temporarily from their shoulders. Joe and Donna are fortyish and tentative about love. Joe was a high-school football star whose knee prevented him from turning pro and then was doubly burned when two friends died in a fishing accident for which he was responsible; Donna is an itinerant singer who is working her way through Alaska for the year with her sullen teenage daughter in tow. The opening of the film sets a wonderful constellation of characters and social factors into motion: the decay of the fishing and cannery business, the developer arrivistes who want to turn Alaska into one giant theme park for adventure-hungry tourists, the rugged renegades from civilization's confining clutches who find their territory ever-dwindling, and the entrepreneurial lesbian couple who operate the area's upscale lodge. All these dynamics are set into full jostle and the strands create a wonderful and rich narrative tapestry. Yet, just as you think you've found the story's groove, Sayles turns directions and pares down the story to focus exclusively on three characters: Joe, Donna, and her daughter Noelle (Martinez). In an ill-developed storyline, the shady dealings of Joe's brother (Siemaszko) become the reason these three are thrust suddenly into a dire survival-in-the-wilderness tale. This, too, is another kind of limbo, and we wonder whether the characters will succumb to the ravages of nature or the perfidy of mankind. It's possible at this point to intellectually appreciate the ideas that Sayles seems to be putting forth, but this latter half of the movie undeniably pales in comparison to the riches of the first half. Sayles is conducting a narrative experiment in which the movie's very conclusion is its most reckless test by confronting the viewer with an intimate (and many say frustrating) knowledge of the state of limbo. It's not simply a matter of courting a quality of ambiguity; what Sayles does here is to truncate the final scene so that we all but learn the fate of the threesome. So many characters were abandoned as the movie moved into the second half, now the final three are left inconclusively. Excellent performances and the steadying camerawork of Haskell Wexler make Limbo
a supremely engaging work, but this place to which Sayles condemns his viewers is just one rung removed from Purgatory.