Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Limbo – One of My Favorite Films and You’ve Probably Never Heard Of It

Written by John Sayles
Directed by John Sayles

John Sayles seems to be the sort of director people either love or hate. I’ve seen his work over the years without ever really associating it with any particular director. Eight Men Out was always one of my favorite films. With my recent glowing review of Lone Star, someone wrote me and suggested that if I like that I should have a look at Limbo.

The story is set in Port Henry, Alaska. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Donna DeAngelo, a washed-up singer reduced to the occasional wedding while touring a circuit that takes her through Alaska to support herself and her daughter. Donna’s apparently bounced around from relationship to relationship and dragged her daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), through all of them. She runs into Joe Gastineau, (David Strathairn) as she’s breaking up with her most recent short-lived romance and he helps her move out.

He’s got his own baggage he’s carrying around in the form of two members of his crew who drowned while out on his fishing boat. For that reason, he doesn’t go out anymore, but functions as the town handyman. The two (lesbian) women he does some work for have taken possession of a fishing boat and license. They want him to go out, but he’s reluctant. Finally, he capitulates.

His half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) shows up in town, and is apparently in some sort of trouble. For whatever reason, he involves Joe in his scheming and makes it sound on the up-and-up. Seeing this trip as a way of getting to know both Donna and her daughter better, Joe asks Donna to come with him on the trip and bring Noelle. Noelle likes him already in that young crush sort of way, and although she already thinks more highly of him than many of the men her mother has been with, she’s disappointed that this is the man her mother has latched onto.

Things take a bad turn while out on the boat, and Joe, Donna, and Noelle end up stranded on an island with little hope of rescue. This situation forces them to draw closer a lot faster than they would have normally, but there is the question of if help will come – and if it will really be help at all.

The movie was written and directed by Sayles. I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised at how much I like his work considering how much he’s collaborated with Bruce Springsteen over the years. Limbo caught me off guard, though, with how much I like it. The story contains characters I’ve seen before in other films, but the actors here bring them alive in such a way that they seem quite unique.

Strathairn in particular made me stand up and take notice. Just watching him in scenes such as when his half-brother comes back into town shows what an exceptional and underrated actor he really is. His facial expression and body language convey his emotions without him having to say a word. Whether he’s leaning back in his chair or tilting his head a certain way, it was almost as if I could read his thoughts at any given time. This is good because the character of Joe is one who plays it close. He doesn’t offer up much of himself to anyone easily, and Strathairn seemed to be a natural in the role. Sayles made so much of Strathairn’s performance in The River Wild during his commentary, I’ll have to watch it again. He’s the sort of actor who doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves, but that’s probably a good thing as he ends up with roles like this.

Mastrantonio seemed the perfect counterpart to him. She’s the optimist whereas he’s the pessimist or realist. She lives in a world where anything that happens can have a positive spin because she just won’t accept the bad side of life, although she does remove herself from bad situations with men before it gets too bad. However, if she weren’t looking at them with those rose-colored glasses to begin with, that removal might not be necessary. I give a lot of credit to Mastrantonio for her singing ability, which I never knew she had before. She does all her own singing in the film and does a real fine job of it.

Between them is Noelle. Martinez portrays her as a typical brooding teenager who’s had so much to deal with growing up that she’s probably never had any real chance to be a child. She’s at an age where a strong older man is attractive to her (although I found with my own daughters it seemed to fall at around 9 or 10 instead of the early teenage years) and likes Joe that way. He doesn’t return that affection, but can see that she’s been through a lot in her life and wants to build her up. That she mistakes that interest and nurturing for true affection is a natural mistake in someone so young who’s starting to have confusing feelings of her own.

Alaska is still such a wilderness, and Sayles captures the beauty and majesty as well as the danger. The isolation of the island is shown in such a way that it’s hard to believe there would be any hope of rescue unless someone was looking for them, and those are the people they don’t want to be found by.

Much has been made of the ending. Being someone who doesn’t like cliffhangers in general (I usually read the last couple of chapters of a book first so I can enjoy it better) I was distressed on my first viewing. However, I later watched it with Sayles’ commentary and found that I liked it more. He hints at what he feels really happens after the film stops rolling, and I do agree with him that where he ended it was probably the best place. To answer every question would have made the film too easy; like a nice neat package all wrapped up for the audience. Instead, people in the audience will often read into it what they want depending on their take on life. Optimists will probably see the happy ending while pessimists will see something different. I was left with a host of questions as to how everything works out, but I think I prefer that.

I’ve watched Limbo twice already, and will probably watch it a third time tomorrow. It’s a movie people will either love or hate as my husband was watching it with me last night on my first viewing and walked out to watch something else in our bedroom. He didn’t like it at all. As for me, anyone who’s waiting for this from Netflix might have a while to wait as I think I’ll be hanging onto it until I can order the DVD from somewhere. I really enjoyed the beauty of Alaska and the lives of the people Sayles shows in the film. As if it needed another reason for me to like it, Springsteen sings the song over the closing credits.

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