Polar bears. Carved totem poles. Eskimo dolls on souvenir shop shelves. Salmon getting their heads chopped off on an assembly line. These are the images that welcome you to “America’s Last Frontier,” or more precisely, to the Juneau, Alaska of John Sayles’s latest film, Limbo. As this opening sequence suggests, the frontier is less wild than it once was; nowadays, it’s exploited and compromised, shaped and reshaped daily by routine and thoughtless violence.
The sequence also conveys that Sayles is remaining true to his iconoclastic form. Known for his righteous politics and resilient dedication to filmmaking as a means to education and provocation, he has also earned respect as a witty dialogue writer (see especially 1980’s The Howling, 1983’s Baby, It’s You, or 1996’s Passion Fish). He is also apparently tireless, having now made 12 films since 1978’s The Return of the Secaucus Seven and including Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), the anti-Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out (1988), and 1997’s Men With Guns. (Not to mention the uncredited script doctoring he does to fund his own projects, as for The Quick and the Dead, Apollo 13, or Mimic.)
Whatever else you might say about Sayles that he’s didactic or shrewd or both you have to admit that the work stands as a model for hardheaded, intelligent, and pragmatic independent filmmaking. Again and again, he gets his stuff out there, resistant, pushy, and usually a little more ambitious than effective.
Often the resistance in his films is embodied by pissed off, virtuous, or mightily confused characters who negotiate recognizable moral hurdles: racism, classism, generational divides. Limbo‘s resistance is more diffuse and potentially off-putting, at once grandly metaphorical and rigidly literal. Most obviously, it is structural: the film presents three protagonists who are plainly “in limbo,” lost in their own lives, not knowing what will come next, and feeling apprehensive and not doing anything about it.
You first see Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) as she’s offering a tray full of hors d’oeuvres to guests at a wedding reception. She seems standard movie-adolescent, pouty, flirty, bored with her job (with a caterer), part-angry and part-sad about her mother Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, giving the best performance of her career), who’s on stage, a singer for the wedding. As soon becomes evident, Donna’s in the process of leaving a relationship with one of the bandmembers: she sings a bitter song about cheating hearts and stomps off the stage. Noelle watches quietly. She’s seen this scene before.
Noelle resents her mom’s almost pathological transience, her apparent inability to “keep” a man or a home. Donna, by contrast and despite her many defeats (she’s a decent vocalist and it’s actually Mastrantonio singing: who knew? doing bullshit work on cruise ships and in seedy nightclubs, she’s shacked up with one selfish musician after another) remains stubbornly optimistic. No surprise, they clash repeatedly. These fights are framed by Noelle’s understandable and conditioned fear of chaos and Donna’s gift for accepting it as ordinary and unscary.
The movie doesn’t pass judgments, but observes. Noelle’s not a bad kid, just fretful and aware. And Donna’s not a bad mom, just preoccupied and worn down, unsure how to handle her daughter’s ineffable darkness. The most moving moment in their non-communication lasts maybe half a minute, with none of Sayles’s vaunted dialogue. Noelle sits with her back to the camera, at a distance, and begins methodically cutting her arm. The camera waits a few beats, watching her without approaching. You wonder about the process, her despair, her relief. But the film won’t untangle the emotions it exposes.
This is when Limbo is best, when it defies standard plot developments, delivers complex situations, conversations where people don’t quite say what they mean, portraits of isolation by cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It spends half its running time introducing the damn characters, doesn’t get around to plot until after Donna is pretty much “involved” with her new beau, a local fishhead-cutter and handyman named Joe (Sayles regular David Strathairn). His existence is as going-nowhere as Donna and Noelle’s. A shy and generally dreary fellow with a murky history (something to do with a years-ago accident when he was a fishing boat captain: a couple of guys died, he’s feeling guilty, the townsfolk jabber about it when he’s not around), Joe is charmed by Donna’s weary cheerfulness. They have a drink, spend some music-montage time on the beach, and share some pedestrian intimacies.
Though finely acted, this first hour is less than innovative (it’s too movie-of-the-weekish: man with a past meets woman with passion), and ends up seeming like a different movie from what happens next. Enter Joe’s brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), asking for help on a short boat trip, but clearly introduced to take the plot someplace unimagined previously. Donna and Noelle come along for the ride, which ends up being anything but romantic or relaxing. They run into Bobby’s drug dealing associates, and find themselves dramatically stranded on an island.
At this point, the movie would seem to be headed into some straight-up adventure, with our heroes’ survival set against both villains and nature (rainstorms, cold nights, lack of food). But Limbo won’t even do that; it continues to stymie your expectations. On one hand, this shift is clumsy: Noelle finds a diary left by a frontier girl in some previous decade: the entries are increasingly discouraged and self-knowing, and Noelle’s nightly readings by firelight provide an old-fashioned structure for the castaways: they sit rapt, willing their lives to take shape and direction, to become stories. But it’s too late. Yes, they’re deep into their limbo, static, fearful, awkward.
As Noelle narrates this story, a conscious descent into hopelessness, the movie sets up an alternative plot, one beyond the generic romance, adventure or character study. Noelle’s story details the risk of desire, of conceiving something other than what you know. And though the movie gestures toward such wild and imagining, but it remains a bit stuck itself, as if the way out isn’t quite within reach. You could call this irresolution a gimmick. But it’s also quite unlike every other movie you’ll see on most Blockbuster shelves.