Like many filmmakers, John Sayles got his start in horror, writing scripts for Piranha, Alligator, and even The Howling. But where others used modest beginnings to springboard into superstardom, Sayles continued modestly, becoming the leading name in indie film and creating a relatively small but wildly diverse catalog of films. He merged wacky aliens with racial commentary in The Brother from Another Planet, tackled sports history for Eight Men Out, detailed Latin America struggles in Men with Guns, and even offered some George Dubya satire with Silver City. Yet within that diversity, he became known for his ability to weave a myriad of disparate characters into one solitary and dynamic plot.

But Limbo is a film of an utterly different sort. Shot in 1999, it took the same ideas that have always interested Sayles -- real people and environments free of the rosy Hollywood sheen -- and didn't allow the web to be woven together. Although he starts with a Southeastern Alaskan community, everything falls by the wayside for three people trying to survive the many shades of limbo.

Even more than some past installments, the rest of the piece will deal heavily with spoilers. If you haven't watched already, definitely stream the film before hitting the jump.

"Papa calls it limbo, because it isn't heaven and it's too cold to be hell.
Mother wondered about purgatory, but he said no, purgatory has an end to it."

Nothing explains Limbo more than the above quote, recited by Vanessa Martinez's Noelle as she reads the blank journal pages. Sayles eschewed many conventions when he made Limbo, choosing to focus on unknowing, while also giving a fully realized and complete cinematic experience. Everywhere his camera turns, there is this stagnant, impenetrable existence. His characters live in many shades of limbo -- growing pains of an area moving away from canneries and into environmental "amusement parks," life and struggle on the road, teenage helplessness, and the aftermath of an old tragedy. The land is in a state of limbo, still picturesque and healthy, but teetering on the precipice of environmental change and deforestation.

Even more distinct are the two worlds of limbo that make up the two halves of the film. For the first hour, we learn about the land, the people, and their struggles. Beyond the everyday citizens, we're hit with the callousness of small-town gossip as Joe (David Strathairn) lives in the shadow of a tragedy that happened many years in the past, we see the aimless and desperate quest for happiness that Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is embroiled in, and feel the deep and lonely pain of her daughter Noelle, as she deals with the constant ramifications of a whimsical and flighty mother. But all that drops away in the second hour, when the trio are stranded on a deserted island fearful for their lives.

Many films try to start with a slow and gradual introduction of characters before jumping into the drama, and many try merging disparate pieces to make a hole -- but none pull it off like Limbo. As much as there is a big split down the middle between the three coming together and then heading up the coast, the film moves fluidly. Sayles accomplishes this by making the viewer feel like they know the path the film will take. However, like life, unforeseen obstacles stand in their way, blocking the perfectly wrapped up story and foiling our expectations.

All too often, even with good films, it's about the experience more than the journey. But for Limbo, it's all about the journey. As Sayles explains in the commentary, these characters seem like three random townsfolk when the movie starts, who then slowly come together in an awkward triangle, before they're thrust into a situation of "forced intimacy," and made into a family. None of us know what will happen and how. Even though you know that Joe's jerky half-brother Bobby is up to no good, the arrival of the danger is still a surprise, sudden and demanding as if it was happening in real life. Sayles is interested in the risk, not the expectation.

In their "forced intimacy," Joe immediately becomes the caregiver, not so much because he feels responsible for putting them into the situation, or wanting to right past failures, but because it's who he is. Donna, meanwhile, cannot handle the danger, but tries to be there for her daughter in the most awkward and inappropriate way -- by pretending the seriousness of the situation doesn't exist.

And then there's Noelle. It's shocking that Martinez hasn't gotten much work outside of Sayles' films and one-off television stints. Her performance offers the wise mind of a girl who had to grow up too quickly, as well as the desperation of youth. Noelle is smart, wry, and a great judge of character, but she's also emotional and desperate, always finding new ways to hurt herself, hunting for something to control.

When she gets to the island, Noelle finds control and release.When we don't realize the book is blank; her words just seem oddly mirrored to their scenario, tugging at Noelle's own problems. Then we learn that this is her story, speaking to her talent and pain, giving the girl a way to express her worries to a mother too upset to listen, and ultimately offering Donna a way to show her love. We can't imagine what the three are going through, but we can feel it through every tear-stained word.

We feel it. That's the point. When Kris Kristofferson's 'Smilin' Jack Johannson flies in, swearing that his radio is out and admitting to Joe that the goons paid him to find them, we have no idea what will happen. Optimism would have us think that even a halfway decent man wouldn't send killers to shoot three innocent people, but we don't know. Jack and Joe have a terrible history, and as much as we want to believe the good in people, there are always those whose deeds shock us.

When the next plane arrives, we never find out if it's help or horror. The trio risk running out onto the beach, and we feel that risk as we watch. As the father in Noelle's story explain: This is limbo, not purgatory -- there is no end. Roger Ebert said in his review: "He [Sayles] refuses to raise false hopes." Sayles won't offer it, but we can't help but feel it anyway. Every time I see that plane coming, I can't help but move a little closer, waiting to see some sign that the plane is coming to help, waiting to hear the slightest indication of what will happen to Joe, Donna, and Noelle. There's never an answer. The limbo is now ours.

It's quite fitting, both for the story and for today's cinema. We patronize a Hollywood system where there are no endings. Sequels have removed that possibility. The only ending is what the money offers us, and how long we choose to follow along. Limbo is a wonderful vacation from that. It's one of the few films that forces us to face the danger and take a risk, and to accept that there never are any endings, which I find equally sweet, inspiring, and aggravating.

  • Sayles says that he tried to figure out an ending for the film, but no other result seemed "right or fair." Could the film have worked with a happy or sad ending?
  • And of course, what do you think of the controversial end?
  • Does the two-part approach work for you -- spending an hour involved in the life, before being ripped out of it and unable to return?
  • Sayles earned Oscar noms for two other films in the '90s -- Lone Star and Passion Fish -- do you think that they're the best of his career? Where does Limbo fit on the list?
All the Scream news lately has me a little nostalgic, so let's get into some horror for next week (which is also streaming!):

Next Week's Film: Scream | Add it to your Netflix queue

Last Week's Film: Dirty Harry