To find a film with a more rambling, incoherent structure than that of John Sayles’ Limbo, you’d have to go as far back as, well, the last John Sayles film. Sayles began his artistic life as a well-received novelist and short-story writer, turning his talents to film with 1980’s Return of the Secaucus 7, thus legitimizing baby boomer nostalgia for at least the next two decades.
His writing career implies that Sayles is no stranger to story construction, but his plots babble or sputter, and his pacing is among the worst in the business— excruciatingly, pointlessly slow. He has a reputation for being Mr. Indie, a professional outsider who won’t allow Hollywood to interfere with his art, but he doesn’t say anything in his movies that establishment directors don’t say in theirs, and he uses the same language of woefully unlikely coincidence and tried-and-true cliche. In the 21 years since he first did it, Sayles has not offered evidence that making the switch from literature to film was spurred by any great love of the medium—his work is neither formally audacious enough to compensate for the lousy storytelling nor passionate enough to make up for the lack of anything worth looking at on-screen.
Sayles’ taste for conventional subjects and vaunted rejection of slick Hollywood expression adds up to movies like Limbo, where tidy points are made in a simplistic fashion, but only after two full hours of senile camerawork (it’s shot by master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but Sayles doesn’t give him anything to shoot at) and character exposition more declarative than dialogue-driven. Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a flighty, selfish, itinerant nightclub singer doing a stint in Port Henry, Alaska, where she’s about to dump the latest in a long string of dickhead musician boyfriends. (She may be a touring veteran, but she’s no professional—Donna announces the breakup onstage while performing at a wedding reception and dedicates a song, “Better Off Without You,” to the guy; can you say, “Entertainment payment withheld?”) Donna has a teenage daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), whom she neglects so thoroughly that neglect itself is something of a full-time job. Noelle is mopey and smart-mouthed, an imaginative fiction writer who cuts herself for temporary relief.
Port Henry is an archetypal Alaskan town, meaning it’s a caricature populated by stereotypes. The first half of the film swirls around the characters, never getting a real fix on them, while broadly discussing the destruction of the area’s beauty and rugged prosperity. Among the inhabitants are relative newbies Frankie and Lou (Kathryn Grody and Rita Taggart), a lesbian couple who run the lodge and stir up resentments among the locals in an effort to be taken seriously. Harmon King (Leo Burmester) is a crotchety old coot who works at the salmon cannery and schemes to get his fishing boat out of hock from the lodge ladies. Kris Kristofferson, who seems contractually bound to play sexy, roguish bush pilots with names like “Smilin’ Jack,” plays just that, and David Strathairn is quiet, salt-and-pepper ex-fisherman Joe Gastineau, the Man With a Terrible Secret.
All of these cardboard cutouts gather in the town’s bar, ironically called the Golden Nugget, and there take turns declaiming background on one another, presumably for the benefit of the cameras, since these same people go to the same bar every night. The story flits around from Donna and Joe’s courtship—she knows he’s an intellectual because, when he stands next to a bookshelf in his house, the book closest to him prominently reads, “Literature”—to intimations of disaster. Two greedy land developers discuss how much forest they can strip, the canning factory closes down, and salmon are dying in droves. If the audience doesn’t quite get it, Sayles has one of the florid, fat-fingered, Disney-quoting developers actually say, “Think of Alaska as one big theme park.” Meanwhile, Joe and Donna both have some redemption to undergo—he for being responsible for the deaths of two people on his fishing boat, she for treating her daughter like a blister. If only they could all three get away from the larger state of indecision and transition in Port Henry and find a place—like a deserted island!—where they could endure some sort of grueling ritual that absolves them all.
Luckily, Sayles has just such a treat in store for them, and any man who treats Walt Disney’s narrative entertainments so disdainfully in his scripts ought to be careful about concocting such an obvious device—call it the Redemption Carousel. Urged by his no-good half-brother, Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), Joe takes a boat out to pick up some “business associates,” bringing along Donna and Noelle for the ride. But when these business associates—drug dealers—climb on board and shoot Bobby, the three others make for a nearby uninhabited island. Rescue, of course, will not come before they face their demons, so Joe, haunted by recurring dreams of the disaster in which he lost two people, brings all his survival skills to bear in order to help save the other two. In a long-abandoned house, Noelle finds an old diary, written by a girl her age who came to the island with her parents long ago. Noelle reads her makeshift family these stories, filled with pointed metaphors for her mother’s neglectful state, and Donna reaches a new understanding about the importance of caring for one’s children.
At 15, it’s way too late for Noelle, but there’s no statute of limitations on this kind of softy-puffy reclamation. All of Donna’s mothering sins of omission are expiated, and Joe has at least made an attempt to save the two souls for whom he is responsible this time, although, upon waking from a bad dream, he does tell Donna, “You can’t save everybody”—a callous remark in the context. Donna lets off some lulus of her own, firmly declaring when Noelle falls ill on the island, “We’ve got to get her out of here,” as if it were only the fresh fish and exercise keeping them there. Still, Limbo is horribly evocative. I mean, what an awful place to be trapped for so long—it’s cold, and nothing ever happens or changes, and there’s no hope for rescue in sight. Until the credits roll—and then you can leave the movie theater. CP