(director/writer/editor: John Sayles; cinematographer: Haskell Wexler; cast: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Donna De Angelo), David Strathairn (Joe Gastineau), Vanessa Martinez (Noelle de Angelo), Kris Kristofferson (Smilin’ Jack), Casey Siemaszko (Bobby Gastineau), Kathryn Grody (Frankie), Rita Taggart (Lou), Leo Burmester (Harmon King); Runtime: 127; Filmakers/Omaha-Orange; 1999)
“Many viewers will be disappointed that there is no payoff.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This emboldened narrative weaves a tale around the embittered characters who live in Juneau, Alaska, and struggle to make ends meet. They are in a precarious state of limbo between the natural beauty of the unspoiled last frontier of Alaska and the increasing commercialism, where developers want to turn the state into a theme park.

The three main characters are caught in their own psychological states of limbo, as fate has made life a tough go of it for them. They are a former fisherman who is in his fifties, now working as a handyman. He is called “Jumping Joe” Gastineau (David Strathairn) from his high school basketball days. Then there is Donna De Angelo (Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a fortyish singer whose voice reminds one a lot of Judy Collins. She has not reached the pinnacle of her profession and is forced to eke out a living by singing in lounges across 36 states and the territory of Puerto Rico. She travels to these jobs with her sensitive and resentful teen-age daughter who is gifted in writing stories and is an aspiring writer, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). Noelle is bewildered by her life and feels unwanted and unloved, not understanding how her mother keeps making wrong choices in the men she picks for boyfriends and why her real father, a musical composer, is unheard from. Her anger and disenchantment with life causes her to perform acts of self-mutilation.

The main characters are really nice people, who each have a story to tell how they got trapped by their circumstances and how they reacted to it. Donna is the optimist, who even when she realizes that her career is going nowhere still sometimes feels the songs she is singing “hook onto her” and sometimes that energy revitalizes her.

Joe is much more reticent and taken aback by the demise of his once promising life that went suddenly downhill through unforeseen circumstances. As a college basketball player he blew out a knee and lost his scholarship at a California university, returning to Juneau to work on his own charter boat. He had a terrible accident when he and his two best friends got drunk, and while they were sleeping the boat capsized and he couldn’t save his friends or his boat. This was too much for him to handle and he lost his will to go on living, withdrawing from people and being a fisherman.

For Noelle, her childhood is a bad memory and to try to make sense out of it she makes up stories, almost sharing the same down-trodden view of life that Joe has. And when she sees her mother leave her latest good-for-nothing boyfriend and fall for the quiet nice guy, who is an avid reader of books and also a rugged outdoorsman it strikes her as being unfair that she also had a crush on him.

What is noteworthy is how earnest and real their situation is and how magnificently graceful the actors are, slowly revealing the sore points and tender sides of their troubled souls. This part of the film is played out against the background of an Alaska being ravaged by business interests, where the locals are being squeezed out of their livelihoods. But this is a land of dreams where hope is ever-present even for those who spend their time in the colorful local saloon, immersed in their own hardluck stories.

The subplots that develop connect somehow with the main characters in an effortless way. The veteran fisherman and angry former boat owner, Harmon King (Burmester), working in a fish processing plant that is closing down, rails against what is happening to him and to Alaska as he confronts the lesbian couple whom he lost his boat to in a business deal gone wrong. The two opposites can’t even come close to understanding each other’s side. This is the same boat that Joe is able to charter, as he gets back to his love for fishing. It seems whatever you do in modern Alaska you have to hurt someone or something, whether intentionally or not. Sayles plays upon the theme of the two Alaskas: one, of the untapped future, which romantically holds visions of the beautiful wilderness; the other, is the state where tourists come to hear stories about the past from the safety of a stagnant civilization.

The first part of the story draws the kindred spirits together, as Joe and Donna seem on their way to finding some happiness together. But Joe’s much younger half-brother, Bobby (Siemaszko), shows up after being away for a long time, and the two who never lived under the same roof and never had the same interests in life but are connected because they shared a father who could not love them. Bobby innocently gets Joe to go out with him on his charter boat concocting some story about meeting some businessmen and wanting to appear as the head of a business himself, so he needs Joe to act as a captain while he acts as an admiral. Joe uses this opportunity to lure Donna and her daughter out to sea, so he can get to know her better.

The second part of the story takes a troubling turn as the ill-fated couple runs into someone with a worst karma situation than theirs — Bobby’s. The couple end up stranded on a deserted island, with little hope of being rescued as Bobby is shot aboard the boat by the drug dealer’s enforcers, after a drug deal Bobby was involved in didn’t work out right. They now must learn how to survive together, as their journey into the interior of the Alaskan wilderness takes away all the glamor of living away from civilization.

Here the three of them realize how unprepared they are for life in the wilderness, finding a broken-down abandoned shed to keep warm at night and signaling for help on an island where no one would logically come looking for them.

The ending is problematic and inconclusive, though it seems apparent that they are doomed. Smilin’ Jack (Kris Kristofferson) finds them with his small seaplane but can’t take them, as he tells Joe that he was hired by two people to find them. He leaves them with a faint hope that he will act in a conscionable way. Smilin’ Jack is the brother of one of those who was drowned in Joe’s boat, something that this maverick drug smuggler has never forgiven Joe. The film ends with a plane returning the next day and the lingering question is, is it a rescue plane or one with the gunmen aboard? Their fate is tied to how the unscrupulous Smilin’ Jack, ultimately, feels about them.

Many viewers will be disappointed that there is no payoff.

The film was well served by a capable cast and even if its story bit off a lot more than it was capable of fully digesting (too many topics from environmental issues to dysfunctional families), it was still good storytelling. But it did try to get too clever with the plot by allowing every angle of the character’s problems to fit too nicely together–there was too much of a parallel symbolism of the castaways relating to their three lives. For instance, Noelle is no longer isolated from her mother and is forced into accepting her mother’s love, and Joe has another chance of saving two people whom he couldn’t before. But these flaws are topped by thought-provoking storytelling, a visually stunning film, and mature dialogue.

Limbo (1999)