Limbo - B-
Viewed June 5, 1999 at Lincoln Square

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.[1] 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.

[1]The coincidence in my mind was certainly helped by seeing Mitchum earlier that week in Otto Preminger's Western River of No Return[2], which features Mitchum helping a singer (Marilyn Monroe) and a kid survive in the wilderness with very little in the way of gear.
[2]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.