I think it says a lot about John Sayles' talent as a filmmaker and storyteller that even a film like Limbo, in retrospect a complete mess, is still worthy viewing. This is easily the worst script that Sayles has ever written for himself; it's a compendium of half-digested ideas and creaky cliches. Take the now infamous lady-or-the-tiger ending of Limbo, for example. It's certainly haunting, but ultimately, I can't discern exactly what Sayles' point with it is. Given the rather unusual amount of time he spends outlining his Alaskan community, I suspected for a while that it may be Sayles making a commentary on the dissolution of social bonds in a town that is clearly undergoing the throes of an transition from a blue-collar fish-and-timber economy to one based on tourism. But I realized that didn't make much sense, since the resolution of the film's ending is entirely dependent on the moral character of a bush pilot who's rather peripheral to the community anyway.
I could go on listing the script's many conceptual flaws, not least of which is the hoary cliche of having our hero's Ne'er-Do-Well Brother drag him into Trouble With Bad Men, but instead, I'll mention the film's strengths. All kvetching about the film's serious flaws aside, it's still a damn interesting movie. Sayles is our most prominent cinematic anthropologist and in the first half of the film his portrait of a town in transition has the feel of authenticity. The acting, as usual for a Sayles film, is excellent. David Strathairn, atoning for his mediocre work in A Midsummer Night's Dream, seems to have summoned up the spirit of Robert Mitchum and placed into his thin frame; he has the same air of world-weary competence that Mitchum exuded during his screen career. Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio reappears from whatever hole she disappeared into and does a passable imitation of a low-rent Margo Timmins. But the real find here is Vanessa Martinez, who gives one of the finest performances of a troubled teen in some time.
The coincidence in my mind was certainly helped by seeing Mitchum earlier
that week in Otto Preminger's Western River of No Return, which features
Mitchum helping a singer (Marilyn Monroe) and a kid survive in the wilderness with very
little in the way of gear.
Just in case you're wondering, my mini-review of it: a formulaic script helped considerably by the magnetism of its leads and some lovely location filming.