John Sayles invents another place where you really don't want to spend much time.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Director John Sayles is resolutely unafraid of variety. While his bigger budget, Hollywood-ensconced contemporaries are content to return to the same stories again and again -- a crime that directors from Tony Scott ("Enemy of the State") to Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail") commit with equal impunity -- Sayles has spent the last 20 years resiliently genre-hopping. He's done historical drama ("Matewan," "Eight Men Out"), Irish fable ("The Secret of Roan Inish"), family mystery ("Lone Star") and even political tragedy ("Men With Guns"). But bravery of purpose doesn't always equal quality of execution, and he's paid for his eclecticism with wildly uneven movies. Sayles is a maker of worlds, not all of which are worth visiting. And if you suspect that a place called "Limbo" might not be one of those worlds that you want to spend much time in, you'd be right.

Limbo, in some Christian theologies, is the place between heaven and hell, a permanent state of suspension. Sayles' "Limbo" begins as an emotional metaphor and winds up as a very real state between life and death. As the film starts, its brokenhearted, small-town Alaskan characters are getting older and further removed from the pasts that haunt them, but they're unable to move forward into any kind of satisfying future. They are, they believe, stranded. Fate, of course, intervenes to show them what stranded really looks like.

In the center of this in-between world is Joe (David Strathairn), a rumpled, easygoing Juneau native whose basketball career ended with an ill-timed injury, and whose fishing career ended with a drunken boating accident that left two friends dead and him guiltily alive. Joe is a tired, prematurely old man sleepwalking through life. That all changes when he meets Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a honey-voiced lounge singer passing through the new frontier and leaving behind a string of messed up relationships. With her is her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), a typically broody adolescent wounded by her mother's immaturity and her own social invisibility. All three are damaged in their own ways, floundering toward love and acceptance but too frightened to find either.

As Joe and Donna strike up a romance, their personalities blossom. Before long Joe's feeling so good that he's even fishing again. But when the trio goes on a boating trip with Joe's shady, screwed-up petty-criminal brother Bobby, Joe's luck runs out. Without warning, he, Donna and Noelle are forced to jump ship and fend for themselves on a remote island in the middle of nowhere. Just to complicate things a little more, a couple of Bobby's cronies are trying to kill them.

"Limbo" is supposed to be about confronting our own demons in order to move on, but the message gets bogged down in all the "Swiss Family Robinson" obviousness. As they settle in and wait to be rescued, the ad hoc family unit takes shelter in a long-abandoned cabin, and Noelle finds the diary of the teenage girl who once lived there. Wonder if she'll find any parallels between the previous tenant's life and her own. Wonder if lessons will be learned for all.

The first half of the film leisurely examines the deterioration and possible salvation of the soul in a once-glorious, rapidly disintegrating landscape. (His Alaska is full of closed factories, wandering tourists and strip mines.) The second half, with its contrived setup and its individual journeys of self-discovery (harvesting kelp and building fires), is artificial and sadly undermines all that's gone before. The abrupt plot shift also means that assorted other dramas from the first half, including one about a desperate fisherman who loses his boat and another about a greedy businessman who wants to Disney up the wilderness -- are abandoned back in civilization. The decision is conscious: Sayles is clearly trying to show how suddenly our paths can change. But he's so anxious to prove his point about the state of Limbo that he ultimately thrusts his own audience into it (is it giving away the ending to say that there is no ending?). The result feels written on a page rather than lived in the real world, a picturesque study in "what if?" It's too bad, because when Sayles finds that reality (the surprises of "Lone Star," the lyricism of "Roan Inish"), the effect can be stunning.

However erratic his skills as a writer and director may be, however, Sayles indisputably knows how to cast a film. Strathairn, Mastrantonio and Martinez are all gloriously hurt, their psychic aches literally oozing out of them. (Donna sobs quietly while working out furiously at the gym, her daughter impassively observes herself as she gouges razors into her arms.) Strathairn in particular, a Sayles regular from "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Passion Fish," is utterly convincing in his heartache. He's the kind of masculine-in-his-depressive-funk leading man that Gary Cooper used to play, and he's well-matched against Mastrantonio's lively, hard-living chanteuse. Their chemistry is a believably coy, middle-aged slow burn, complete with equal parts emotional baggage and nagging, nail-biting optimism.

Martinez, who had a small but memorable role in "Lone Star," isn't quite up to the level of her co-stars, but she nevertheless knows how to ricochet between intensity and fragility in a manner that suggests she won't have to spend the next few years on the teen comedy circuit. Her character, like the others, is searching for something, she just doesn't know for certain whether it's a second chance at life or the sweet release of death. All three actors play it as if it's a little bit of both.

In an industry in which risk-taking is rarely rewarded and the only sure thing is a known thing -- what's your pleasure this summer? "Star Wars" 4, "Austin Powers" 2, or a remake of the old TV series "The Wild, Wild West"? -- John Sayles is still an appreciated oddity, a directorial daredevil willing to chance failure on a new venture. But at this stage in his career, he seems in danger of becoming so enamored of new styles that his films are simply exercises in different scenery, not fully fleshed out stories. His best work may lie ahead, or he may devolve into the indie circuit's most painfully fickle talent. Like his characters in "Limbo," Sayles is at a crossroads. He may believe that moving all the time is the best way to not get stuck, but that kind of constant change also leads to atrophy.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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