There's a brief montage near the beginning of writer/director John Sayles' new movie during which various denizens of a bar in the small fishing town of Port Henry, Alaska, are shown spinning very similar tall tales. We don't hear the whole stories, just a series of intercut and crucial punch lines, about fog that can blind, cold air that can kill and freezing water that can swallow a person whole. The message is clear: Alaska is not a fit environment for human beings to inhabit. They simply don't belong there.
Sayles' movies often have a strong sense of place that serves not just as backdrop for his stories but determines their narrative tone. New Jersey inspired his most chaotic storytelling ("City of Hope"), just as the improbable beauty of Ireland moved him to fantasy ("The Secret of Roan Inish"). The Tex-Mex border was an illusory obstruction that couldn't stave off interracial and incestuous passions ("Lone Star").
Limbo begins as a tentative love story between just the sort of characters you'd expect to find in a naturally inhospitable backwater -- resilient people with dubious pasts. David Strathairn, a veteran of several Sayles movies, brings his low-keyed and somewhat bruised charm to the role of Joe Gastineau, a former fisherman who gave up his trade when a boating accident led to the death of two people. Joe becomes involved -- slowly, after much well-written Saylesian banter -- with a lounge singer named Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who shares both Joe's world-weariness and his essential decency. Donna has a troubled young teen-age daughter (Vanessa Martinez), a sensitive type who has withdrawn into a cocoon of self-loathing.
But just as the viewer is settling into the small but well-drawn drama of this trio's relationship, a contrived plot device leaves them stranded, literally, on an island in the middle of nowhere. The limbo that the town of Port Henry held at bay now asserts itself. In a primal shift of perspective, we realize that Joe and Donna's appealing character traits aren't enough to save them from freezing to death.
Sayles takes his trip even further, all the way to a willfully unsatisfying ending. Obviously, it's an attempt to instill in the audience some sense of what "limbo" actually means. It's a perverse ending, and a bold one, though not everyone will be willing to make the leap into the void.
We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.
Email us at email@example.com.
Orlando Weekly works for you, and your support is essential.
Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Central Florida.
Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.
Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Orlando’s true free press free.