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A State of Uncertainty

By Roy Rodenstein

Written and directed by John Sayles

With Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson, Casey Siemaszko

What can one expect from a movie entitled Limbo? When the director is John Sayles, certainly some surprises. His highly praised Lone Star brought to life a small Texas town packed to its dusty core with buried secrets, and Limbo isn’t lacking in momentous twists either. This time Sayles plays havoc with his story’s scope.

The film’s beginning seems harmless enough, introducing us to various characters at a gathering in a fishing town. There are the power players in suits, discussing clever tactics for destroying forests as long as the areas which tourists visit are left pristine. There is the hired help, including a girl serving finger food and the grizzled-looking Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn) doing the heavy lifting. Then there is the singer, Donna DeAngelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who breaks up with her bandleader boyfriend with an angry song and asks Joe for a lift.

Slowly, Donna and Joe grow closer. Donna’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) isn’t happy about her mom’s new boyfriend: “I can barely keep their names straight, now I have to like them,” she exclaims. How can Noelle cope with this situation? What is the significance of Joe’s “not exactly friend” Jack (Kris Kristofferson) at the bar? What is Joe’s estranged half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) really after when he drops into town and asks Joe to join him on a boat? Is teenaged Noelle just going through a phase, or does her despair run deeper than it seems? These are just a few of the innocuous sounding questions that combine to place Donna, Joe, and Noelle into a tightly wound net.

Sayles isn’t playing cops-and-robbers here. The three lead characters are imperiled in numerous ways, whether by friend, foe, self, or nature, and new threats can quickly overshadow the old ones. Although mentioning these plot twists would reveal too much, it should be made clear that subtlety is not the film’s forte. People’s lives are at stake throughout the film. At first, this bluntness is off-putting, but Limbo gradually settles into a recognizable image of reality. The scope of the plot’s events -- whether they will impact little or everything -- is highlighted aptly. Truth is still stranger than fiction, and knowing what is really going on, what could really happen, and what is too far-fetched to happen, is the central conflict Sayles’ characters deal with.

Donna, whose melodramatic tendencies are kept at bay by Mastrantonio, doesn’t believe that some of the things that happen to them are even possible. She prefers to delude herself, and from this delusion she gains blind courage. Noelle had such a rough childhood that she’d believe anything could happen, but she doesn’t necessarily find positive ways of dealing with her fears. A third alternative is the utterly accepting and ready attitude taken by ex-fisherman Joe, played with quiet vigor by Strathairn in a role as different as could be from his portrayal of wealthy criminal Pierce Patchett in L.A. Confidential. Sayles doesn’t bias his film in favor of any character’s viewpoint, respecting each character as a human being trying to cope with the inescapable limbo of life.

As successful as the film’s main thrust is, some aspects are glaring enough to be distracting. Bobby Gastineau’s effervescence clashes painfully with the down-to-earth tone of the rest of the movie. It’s also possible that Sayles’ obsession with coincidences and revelations -- demonstrated in Lone Star -- weakens an otherwise robust film.

No matter. Along with Sayles’s customary impeccable editing and poignant nature photography, the ordinary parts of Limbo coalesce into a picture of everyday life, as precarious today as ever.