Logline: In an economically devastated Alaskan town, a fisherman with a troublesome past dates a lounge singer whose young daughter does not approve of him. When his half-brother returns to town, the lives of these three are changed forever.
Papa calls it limbo because it sure isn’t heaven and it’s too cold to be hell. Mother wondered about purgatory, but he said no. Purgatory has an end to it.
Such are the haunting words that sum up John Sayle’s 1999 film that manages to shifts audience expectations scene by scene. No stranger to the film scene by the late 90s, Sayles had written everything from strict genre scripts to his own independent features, receiving two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay: Passion Fish (1992), and Lonestar (1996).
Amid a sizable cast of characters in Limbo, we center on a handyman named Joe (David Strathairn), an awkward former basketball star whose career is diminished following an injury; Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a singer whose dream never got off the ground; and Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), Donna’s teen daughter, who possesses a few secrets of her own. Gastinaux and Mastrantonio, in particular, are classic cases of “That guy/gal” syndrome, and Limbo excels by simply giving them the well-earned spotlight and stepping back to watch them in action. Martinez gives a substantial performance as well, leading one to wonder why she hasn’t taken more roles.
One of the more striking aspects from Limbo is just how real the setting feels. The town and its inhabitants are built from the ground up and it’s nice to see the Alaskan setting used honestly for a change, rather than as the backdrop to a horror or sci-fi flick. Everything from the culture and the politics, to the tourism and newsreels feels inspired. It’s one thing for a filmmaker to present the viewer with an on-screen setting, but Sayles manages to make the town feel as if life continues once the camera stops rolling.
In a sense this could be thought of as two films, as the characters are plucked from the established town around the hour mark and thrown into a new arc with a new purpose. While it is a noteworthy change of pace, the established themes persist on both ends and lead to some spectacular character moments in the latter half.
The second hour of the film showcases some stunning Alaskan landscapes which give great looks at the unforgiving nature of the region. Alaska is seen as a frontier. There is no cell service. No roads. No tourism. This is the wilderness.
The ending will divide audiences today just as it did in 1999, with the opinion spectrum ranging from genius to infuriating. We can agree to call it what is: “gutsy”. Regardless of one’s personal feelings, it’s hard to see the film ending another way. After dwelling on the film’s final seconds, one can see that altering the ending would go against the ideals established by Sayles during the previous two hours. Ultimately, Limbo is a slow burning thriller that packs a carefully-aimed punch.