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With his latest work, indie filmmaker John Sayles grows as an artist, but alienates his audience.

Left in "Limbo"

Writer-director John Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus Seven" helped launch the contemporary American independent film movement in 1980. Now with "Limbo," his 12th and latest work, the iconoclast Sayles reminds us what true independence is all about.

Sayles built his career on linear, straightforward storytelling, picking different locales as a means of framing stories and explaining characters. From the West Virginia coal mines and burgeoning labor unions of "Matewan" (one of my all-time favorite films) to the ethereal beauty of the Irish sea and shore in "The Secret of Roan Inish," Sayles' work has always satisfied in unconventional ways.

While "Limbo" follows that basic Sayles pattern, it is also his most daring film to date. Why? Because of the ending. Audiences will hate it. At the recent Cannes Film Fest, crowds booed at "Limbo's" conclusion. Although mainstream audiences are used to unresolved endings as a way to set up the next lucrative sequel, that's not the case with "Limbo." Its ending is a cliffhanger with no possibility of a sequel. Sayles himself tells interviewers he has no idea what happens to his characters other than they are "facing an uncertain future."

However disturbing the ending to Sayles' tale may be, the setup is dandy. Cast and directed with his trademark care, "Limbo" offers viewers characters to care about. David Strathairn brings a poignant hesitancy to his role. As Joe Gastineau, Strathairn is a man clinging to the small routines of daily life to keep from drowning in memories of a past tragedy. His last relationship ended because his girlfriend found him too depressing.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who made her living singing before turning to acting, plays Donna De Angelo, a singer with no chance at the big time. Also a multiple loser in the game of love, she's about to run out on her latest. Her main concern though is trying not to alienate her teen-age daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez from Sayles' "Lone Star"), not an easy feat.

Both Strathairn and Mastrantonio do a wonderful job conveying the tentative tenderness their roles require. Watching their growing relationship is one of the more satisfying and affecting parts of the movie. On the technical side, the superb cinematography of Haskell Wexler is equally moving. Wexler captures the brooding skies and rough natural beauty of Alaska, making it as much a part of the plot as the characters.

But just when you think you know where "Limbo" is headed, Sayles takes off in another direction. Different parts of Gastineau's past, including a sly and slippery half brother (Casey Siemaszko) and a pilot he has unfinished business with (Kris Kristofferson), reappear, and the next thing you know, you're watching a different movie. Gone is the tentative romance and the tender mending of battered hearts. Now we're in the midst of a full-fledged wilderness survival tale.

If it's not obvious at first why the movie is titled "Limbo," it will be by the time it ends. Consistent with the title, the movie's resolution intentionally leaves a problematic aftertaste. Determined to use melodrama as a means to get to other places and explore other possibilities, Sayles blithely assumes the audience will follow. And because of his consummate skill, we usually do. But this time, the journey isn't nearly as tough as the

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