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September 5, 2010

Limbo (1999)
Director: John Sayles
Actors: David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez

Synopsis: A family get stranded in wild Alaska after their boat is attacked….

Review: Usually a huge admirer of the John Sayles oeuvre and a champion for Sunshine State (2002) as one of American cinema’s masterpieces of the last decade, I was immensely surprised and disappointed at just how mediocre and ordinary his generally well-lauded 1999 effort – Limbo – actually is. Sayles has always veered towards didacticism in his work, but even in a film as agenda-laden as Sunshine State, he was able to integrate the politics and rhetoric seamlessly (and, at times gracefully) into his narrative and geographic locus. Limbo, however, is transparently and irredeemably schematic and ‘scripted’ – particularly the opening sequences where narrative backstory is revealed in supposedly organic bar-room anecdotes.

Even Sayles’ politicking of Alaska as a ‘last frontier’ and a ‘paradise lost’ feels loose and generic, introduced in a series of odious monologues and pictoral sequences in the opening half-hour. All that would still suffice if, as in his recent effort Honeydripper, the drama was suitably judicious and engaging. Unfortunately, the narrative is extremely pat and uninteresting. The three leads are clichés, and the risible plot development that leaves them stranded in remote Alaska barely convinces on any level. For realism’s sake, it never seems plausible that the stranded have been without food and water for two weeks (as well as presumably their nerves being shot to pieces from the ever-present fear of murder). Instead it seems as if they are merely on a tough overnight camping trip. In fact, the narrative throws up egregious errors one after the other, and it’s difficult to decide which is the most fatuous: whether it’s the bizarre lurch into gangster machinations at the midway point, or the dreary diary ‘conceit’ of the stranded section, to the blithe and thematically redundant ‘limbo’ cliffhanger at the end. This is a rare misfire from Sayles, but forgiveable by the high success-to-failure ratio of his prolific output.  (August 2008)

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