The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of the word "limbo" (other than the obvious religious reference) is "a region or condition of oblivion, neglect or prolonged uncertainty." Director John Sayles takes that definition to heart in one form or another all the way through to the end of his latest dramatic film.Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Donna de Angelo an attractive forty-something-single mother who is a singer and has dragged her daughter from one state to the next performing at various gigs or in bars. Because of this her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) is even more alienated than most teens, having spent a lot of time moving between schools without a stable home life or a father.
Donna falls for Joe (David Strathairn) an admirable local guy. Joe is one of these guys who live on the reflections of faded glory and the regrets for past mistakes. He has lost his job at a pulp mill but since he is a jack-of-all-trades he works odd jobs to keep the bills paid. Everyone in the film seems stuck in Alaska unsure of what will happen next. In short they are in limbo.
The performances are all top notch. Mastrantonio beautifully sings her own songs, and Martinez gives a solid performance as her daughter. Strathairn gives an understated performance as the soft-spoken awe-shucks guy who has the ability to charm Donna as well as be a heartthrob for Noelle.
The film is divided into two parts. The first part is an introduction to all the characters, including funny subplots centered on a lesbian couple and a combative fisherman, and their personal circumstances in the small Alaskan town.
The second part is centered around a big boating debacle brought about by Joe's brother (Casey Siemaszko as a greasy businessman type), that forces the three main characters to leave their boat and swim to a nearby remote island where they become stranded.
Over the course of many days they face a "Robinson Crusoe" type dilemma of survival, but as time goes on their situation is also one of reconciliation love and trust. Effectively, their stay on the island is like a crash course in building a family. Yet it is also fraught with suspense as they wait for anyone to notice they are gone and initiate a rescue party.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who worked with Sayles on MATEWAN and SECRET OF ROAN INISH, does suitable work emphasizing the cold chilly environs of Alaska which helps add a dramatic touch, but it's not enough to make the film as good as many other Sayles' films.
Sayles has usually been considered a utilitarian filmmaker always stronger with the content than the form or style of his movies. And even though some have not liked the political views he sets forth in his movies there is little doubt that he is a fine scriptwriter. His work (including his novels) click with people on both cerebral and storytelling levels because of this. In this film he takes a half step back from the politics that reside in his work and makes an effective -- if not flawed -- dramatic work.
Flawed because it seems that Sayles doesn't seem to trust his own conventional writing skills enough anymore. Instead he has to add little tricky twists into his films. In LONE STAR he played up the incest card to shock the audience. Here he takes a challenging narrative chance that will leave some flustered. The film rides the fence between a conventional Hollywood melodrama and an independent feature with precarious overtones and because of this the film is better than most Hollywood summer flicks.But no doubt even though some will applaud him at the end many others will leave scratching their heads. ---Matt Langdon - iF Magazine (http://ifmagazine.ifctv.com)