Sony // 1999 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // December 12th, 1999
A condition of unknowable outcome.
John Sayles, director of art house favorites Passion Fish and Lone Star, creates a stunningly beautiful movie that really seems like two separate films.
John Sayles is an acclaimed writer and director whose movies, unfortunately, I have never seen. My movie tastes usually lie in the middle between the blandly mainstream and edgy art house fare. Limbo also rests in that middle ground, and whets my appetite for his other films.
Limbo stars three recognizable Hollywood stars: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Abyss), David Strathairn (The River Wild, L.A. Confidential, Sneakers), and Kris Kristofferson (Payback, Blade, Lone Star). Each turns in Oscar-caliber performances. The rest of the cast, many who have been in other Sayles films or were local non-actors, also have strong screen presences.
Limbo, like I said, seems to tell two separate stories. The first one is a fairly straightforward dramatic tale of people with failed lives living in the coldest hell on Earth -- Alaska. It centers upon Donna (Mastrantonio), an itinerant lounge singer, her teenaged daughter Noelle (played by newcomer Vanessa Martinez), and Joe (Strathairn), a jack-of-all-trades with a dark past. Donna has pulled up roots and moved on far too often to be able to settle into a normal life with her daughter, and now she has dragged this troubled girl to a miserable place. At a wedding reception, Donna breaks up with her band mate boyfriend, and enlists Joe to help her quickly move out of his home in a trailer park. Donna and Joe form a tentative romantic bond, much to the dismay of Noelle, who has a crush on the older man. For a little over an hour this story progresses and, little by little, the layers of these people's lives (particularly Joe's) are revealed. Then comes the transition into the second movie as it were.
Into the story drops Joe's half-brother, Bobby (Casey Siemaszko). Bobby's in trouble and needs his older brother's help on a sailing trip to meet a business acquaintance. Joe reluctantly agrees. He is suspicious of this relative he barely knows, but does not guess the full nature of his brother's problems. Joe invites Donna and Noelle along for the ride. Several days later and many miles from civilization, all hell breaks loose, and Donna, Noelle, and Joe are stranded on a remote island in the freezing Alaskan weather. They find a cabin where they wait for help. At the abandoned cabin, Noelle finds a mysterious diary, which tells the story of a young girl who was also stranded on the island. Two weeks go by with little in the way of either food or shelter. A plane lands, bringing Smilin' Jack (Kristofferson). We met Jack earlier in the story at the local pub hangout, and had been given a glimmer of some negative history between Jack and Joe. Joe doesn't trust Jack (and looking into Kristofferson's eyes, would you?), who claims to have no radio and no room for passengers. How does it end? That I'll leave up to you to find out. I'll say this much, the end is surprising.
Limbo was filmed in and around Juneau, Alaska. It looks quite a bit like my native Oregon, only with more rain, snow, ice, and bears. Sayles notes in the commentary track that he gave the first half of the movie a decidedly picture-postcard feel to it, but that the latter half was shot to give nature a more sinister overtone. On the DVD, the picture is stunning. It is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and I detected no flaws other than the rare negative dirt-speck. The sound is very dialogue-centric, but it also showcases Mastrantonio's singing talents. The DVD does not have a whole lot in the way of extras, but those that are present add considerably to the movie. Sayles does a commentary track. I enjoy listening to the filmmakers talk about their projects, but often their comments aren't particularly insightful. Sayles' commentary, on the other hand, gave me a greater appreciation for both the depth of the story and the technical obstacles that had to be overcome to shoot in the Alaskan wilderness. An isolated music track is included. The music figures prominently in the story, but there isn't a whole lot of it. A theatrical trailer both for Limbo and Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish round out the extras.
I can't think of many bad things to say about Limbo or its DVD presentation. I do question Sayles' structure. Including two nearly unconnected stories in the same movie is tricky. He pulls it off, but only barely. I would have preferred to see one of two things. One, follow these three main characters through a less life-threatening plot device and have them find their moral fiber under normal circumstances. Or two, give less exposition into their backgrounds and immediately drop them into the life-threatening situation. Either way would be a more conservative and traditional account. Doing things against the grain, however, is what separates mainstream filmmaking from the independents and I applaud Sayles for taking risks.
I've already recommended this film to my friends and family. If you like character studies and unconventional storytelling, this would make an excellent rental or addition to your collection.
The film is acquitted on all charges. The director is informed that this court likes satisfying endings. Columbia is commended for their excellent DVD presentation.
Review content copyright © 1999 Mike Jackson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Isolated Music Track
* Theatrical Trailers
* Official Site