USA/Germany 1999

Film still for Limbo

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Port Henry, Alaska, the present. Joe Gastineau works as a handyman at a guest lodge run by Frankie and Lou. An ex-fisherman, Joe quit 25 years ago when his boat sank, drowning two of his friends. At a party he meets singer Donna De Angelo, and helps her move into a flat at the Golden Nugget saloon, her new place of work.

When Frankie and Lou persuade Joe to go out fishing, he rediscovers his joy in the job. He and Donna become lovers, arousing her teenage daughter Noelle's jealousy. Joe's half-brother Bobby, who runs a charter business, asks Joe to help him crew a boat up the coast to meet clients. Joe invites Donna and Noelle along for the ride.

En route, Bobby confesses his clients are drug dealers. They show up and shoot Bobby; Joe, Donna and Noelle escape to a nearby island. They take refuge in a hut. Noelle finds a diary left by a previous owner and starts reading from it; as the narrative grows more doom-laden, Donna realises Noelle, now feverish, is making it up. Jack Johansson, a pilot from Port Henry, arrives in a small seaplane. He admits he's working for the drug dealers, but promises to fetch help. Soon, a larger plane approaches. The three await rescue or death.


John Sayles is one of the most politically tuned-in of American independents. But the downside to his social awareness can be a tendency to didacticism, where the narrative moves predictably towards closure. Not this time, though. Limbo is Sayles' most unexpected film to date: not so much in its themes, which connect with his previous work, as in the shape of the story and the way it's resolved - or rather, in the way it isn't resolved. Limbo, as Sayles defines it, is "a condition of unknowable outcome", and this is exactly the point he leads us to.

Locations are crucial to Sayles' work, and he has always explored cultural territory far from his own New Jersey roots. With Limbo he veers northwards to Alaska, which he presents as frontier territory. Not a frontier in the adventurous, uncharted sense of the Old West, but a last-resort frontier for washed-up characters who have wearily arrived here with their disillusionments in tow. Most of them take a perverse pride in living in such a God-awful place. A running gag involves the regulars of the local saloon swapping ghoulish tales of drownings and fatal freezings.

For the first half of the film we're in familiar Sayles terrain. As in City of Hope or Lone Star he evokes a community with its feuds and social cross-currents, often via his signature shot: a long unbroken take meandering from group to group, picking up phrases and showing how all these people connect up. But midway Sayles works a switch on us, lifting his three main characters out of this busy environment and dropping them into isolated jeopardy to play out a tight psychological drama.

Each of the trio carries weighty emotional baggage. Ex-fisherman Joe Gastineau is haunted by an accident where he caused the death of two friends; torch singer Donna De Angelo is the survivor of a string of transient relationships; her teenage daughter Noelle has taken to self-mutilation in response to her insecure lifestyle. Trapped on an island, and with the Alaskan winter closing in, the three are forced into close interdependence, exacerbating the fears and tensions between them. It's still a community, but shrunk down, distilled and intensified, all its edges sharpened.

They're joined by a ghost: the diary of a young girl who once lived on the island with her parents. Noelle finds the diary, reads aloud from it and starts using it as a weapon, rewriting it as she goes to mirror her own situation and get back at her mother. This set-up recalls Sayles' 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, where a family also wind up on an offshore island haunted by past presences. But that was far lighter in tone; Limbo introduces a harsh, unsettling note that's new in his work. Though the three confront their demons, we're left with no assurance that they'll find redemption.

As ever, Sayles gives his actors plenty to chew on. David Strathairn hits the exact note of wary gentleness, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's taut, ravaged beauty has never been better used. Haskell Wexler makes the Alaskan wilderness look at once alluring and forbidding; a shot of icy mist drifting over wooded hills has a Japanese delicacy. Over two hours long, the pace occasionally drags. Certain characters and elements - such as Noelle's crush on Joe - feel underdeveloped, almost as if the film had been boiled down from a longish novel. But when, as here, a film-maker strikes out on a daring new track, the odd minor imperfection goes with the territory.


John Sayles
Maggie Renzi
John Sayles
Director of Photography
Haskell Wexler
John Sayles
Production Designer
Gemma Jackson
Mason Daring
™Global Entertainment Productions GmbH & Co. Medien KG
Production Companies
Screen Gems presents
a Green/Renzi production
Associate Producer
Sarah Connors
Production Co-ordinator
Dawn Todd
NY Production Office Manager
Melissa Rubin
Unit Production Managers
Deborah Cass
Maggie Renzi
Location Manager
Carla Raij
Post-production Supervisor
Keri Kravitz
2nd Unit Director
Sandy McLeod
Assistant Directors
John Powditch
Brian O'Kelley
Script Supervisor
Sandy McLeod
Lizzie Martinez
Laura Rosenthal
Marcia DeBonis
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Larry Goldin
Camera/Steadicam Operator
P. Scott Sakamoto
Aerial Camera Operator
Doug Holgate
Digital Effects
Computer Film Company
Associate Editor
Plummy Tucker
Art Director
Keith Neely
Set Designer
Marco Rubeo
Set Decorator
Brian Kasch
Costume Designer
Shay Cunliffe
Make-up Supervisor
Lori Hicks
Hair Supervisor
Aaron F. Quarles
Main Titles Design
Imaginary Forces
Pacific Title/Mirage
Featured Guitarist
Duke Levine
Shane Koss
Dana Brayton
Music Supervisors
Lynn Geller
Susan Jacobs
Music Editor
Patrick Mullins
Music Recording
Dave Shacter
Score Mixer
Michael Golub
"You Never Can Tell" aka "C'est La Vie" by Chuck Berry, performed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; "Better Off without You" by Marshall Chapman, Dennis Walker, Fontaine Brown, performed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; "Pas Salé" arranged by Jimmy MacDonell, performed by Loup Garou; "(Lookin' for) The Heart of Saturday Night" by Tom Waits, performed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; "Dimming of the Day" by Richard Thompson, performed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; "Loving You Is Hell Enough for Me" by John Sayles, Mason Daring, performed by Rust Farm (Chris Moore & John McGann) with Marshal Wood, Timothy Jackson; "Attack of the Mutant Guitars" by Duke Levine, performed by Duke Levine, Tom West, Paul Bryan, Doug Plavin; "Georgy Porgy" by Duke Levine, Mason Daring, performed by Duke Levine; "Lift Me Up" by/performed by Bruce Springsteen
Sound Mixer
Judy Karp
Re-recording Mixer
Michael Barry
Supervising Sound Editor
Philip Stockton
Dialogue Editor
Nicholas Renbeck
Sound Effects Editors
Lewis Goldstein
Sean Garnhart
Hal Levinsohn
Kam Chan
Marko Costanzo
Matthew Haasch
Jac Rubenstein
Frank Kern
Boat Co-ordinator
Andy Spear
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Donna De Angelo
David Strathairn
Joe Gastineau
Vanessa Martinez
Noelle De Angelo
Kris Kristofferson
Smilin' Jack Johansson
Casey Siemaszko
Bobby Gastineau
Kathryn Grody
Rita Taggart
Leo Burmester
Harmon King
Michael Laskin
Herminio Ramos
Dawn McInturff
Tom Biss
Jimmy McDonell
Randy Mason
Märit Carlson-Van Dort
Monica Brandner
Maria Gladziszewski
Dan Rinner
Stephen James Lang
Ron Clarke
cruise director
Charlotte Carroll
loan officer
Joaqlin Estus
Andy Spear
Dave Hunsaker
bad guys
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
11,410 feet
126 minutes 47 seconds
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011