John Sayles is one of the more thoughtful film directors making movies these days. The body of his work over the last two decades is uneven in quality, but never insulting to the intelligence. As an American writer/director with something worthwhile to say, he immediately puts himself in an exclusive group – there just aren’t a whole lot of ‘em around.
Matewan, Sayles’ 1987 movie about union organizing in West Virginia coal mines, is a powerful work, one that stays with you. It is also precursive of characteristics associated with Sayles’ work – an interest in the way people make a living, a documentarian’s eye – even in fictional works, and a leftish, humanitarian viewpoint. In The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), Sayles revealed a more lyrical, almost magical realistic sensibility, and grew noticeably more powerful as a storyteller. Lone Star (1996), perhaps his most popular film, told an engrossing story while exploring interracial friction on the Texas/Mexico border. Less successful was Sayles’ excursion into Latin America in the 1997 film, Men With Guns, in which the characters were stiff and the narrative thrust petered out too soon.
In his new film, Limbo, Sayles is in top form again, crafting an absorbing story, set in southeastern Alaska, about appealing, rounded characters. He takes his time, but never bores us, as he introduces both the place and a variety of people. Where some directors use scenic footage to set a mood or provide pretty backgrounds for their stories, Sayles uses landscape and the visual aspects of his chosen locations as an integral part of the texture of the lives of his characters and the thoughts he wants to share about them. He’s interested, too, in the economics of their lives – the ways they make a living and the ways they don’t.
With wonderful footage behind the main titles of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, we are not only introduced to a major economic factor both of the region and in the life of Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), the fisherman hero of the film, but we also get a powerful image of the struggle for life and survival. Sayles gives us a good look inside of a cannery, letting you feel what it must be like to work there. And, through a combination of a voiceover "official" tour guide, laden with irony, and overheard pieces of conversation, we learn in a most engaging way of the decline of the fishing industry, unemployed pulp mill workers, encroaching tourism with its ugly commercialization, environmental concerns.
As he provides this exposition, Sayles smoothly introduces his characters. It’s a small town; people’s histories are intertwined. Years before, Joe survived the sinking of a fishing boat; the others on board drowned. Tortured with guilt, he hasn’t fished since, though Sayles makes it clear in time that fishing is his calling. We meet Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), singer at the local saloon, floating from one bad relationship to another, and mother of a disaffected teenager, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). Though Donna’s singing career is on the skids, Sayles gives her a wonderful bit of dialogue in which she expresses the satisfaction she gets in those moments – "moments of grace" – when she feels connected to a song and the music and her audience all at once.
Sayles’ story maroons Joe and Donna and Noelle on an uninhabited island where their isolation and the danger they are in intensifies their relationships, their mutual understanding and caring deepens, and their inner conflicts shift toward resolution.
We are not going to spoil it for you by telling more about this, but the ending is a courageous choice by Sayles. It is surely going to be talked about and some viewers will be annoyed by it. If they stop and think why Sayles ends the film as he does, they will understand that at that moment he has told you what he wants to tell you; the rest doesn’t really matter. The unconventional ending effectively focuses attentionon his message.
Of course, for those who don’t think at the movies, that may be small consolation. Perhaps they would be happier seeing Phantom Menace again. Sayles made a masterful and artistically valid choice.