Director: John Sayles
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez
NY Distribution Status: opens 4 June 1999 (Screen Gems)

Grade: C+

The title, it turns out, is depressingly apt, as limbo is where most of the film's scattershot smorgasbord of characters and subplots and ideas wind up residing, abandoned and forgotten. It's Sayles at his clunkiest and most labored, lurching haphazardly from issue to issue without regard for thematic consistency or (frankly) viewer patience; you can almost sense him just outside the frame in the most didactic scenes, making a small checkmark on a list headed LEFT-WING CONCERNS: ALASKA. A couple of corporate bigwigs who discuss the notion of the Alaskan wilderness as potential organic theme park might as well be twirling handlebar mustaches, and their greedy machinations have no bearing on anything that follows; neither do the remarkably trenchant grumblings of a handful of laid-off fish-gutters. Even the main storyline, while considerably more lively, and well served by a capable cast, often seems sketchy and unfocused -- especially after the film takes an unexpectedly melodramatic turn and threatens to metamorphose into a dysfunctional-family sequel to The Edge. It's bad enough that our moody protagonist is saddled with the requisite Traumatic Past Incident That Haunts His Nightmares to This Day, but Sayles doesn't even bother to provide this cliché with its equally requisite payoff: much is made of the fact that Joe Gastineau (Strathairn) hasn't set foot on a fishing boat in 25 years, presumably since the night of the Traumatic Past Incident That Haunts His Nightmares to This Day -- yet when asked to cast his nets again, as a casual favor, he barely even hesitates before agreeing. (Imagine Sayles' Casablanca: "Sam, I thought I told you never to play that -- hey, Ilsa, long time no see! What can I do you for?") Most of the pleasures here are incidental: Strathairn's low-key charisma; Mastrantonio's lovely singing voice (her character covers Tom Waits and Richard Thompson, among others); stunning location photography; an agreeably ambiguous conclusion. It's the worst Sayles picture I've ever seen, and I've seen all but the first three; that his most egregious clunker is slightly better than average says a lot about how valuable a filmmaker he is, even at his most obstinately literary.