[Screen It]


(1999) (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn) (R)

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Drama: A man haunted by his past and a single mother and her troubled teenage daughter find themselves unexpectedly stranded in the Alaskan wilderness.
The small fishing town of Port Henry, Alaska is in a state of transition. Traditional employment in places like the local pulp mill and fishing cannery are being replaced by the new goal of attracting more tourists to the scenic area.

Stuck in the middle of all of this is Joe Gastineau (DAVID STRATHAIRN), a longtime local who was once a shining basketball star until an injury and a two-decade old tragic accident left him a ghost of his former self. Now working part time for the town's lesbian business partners, Frankie (KATHRYN GRODY) and Lou (RITA TAGGART), Joe also does odd jobs, such as delivering wine to a local wedding.

That's where he meets Donna De Angelo (MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO), a transient singer who's just broken up with her boyfriend and needs help moving out of his place. Asking Joe for assistance, Donna moves her belongings -- and those of her teenage daughter, Noelle (VANESSA MARTINEZ), to an apartment above a bar where she'll be performing for the next several weeks.

Soon, the two cautious adults become close friends, a point that doesn't sit well with Noelle. A troubled teen who's curious about death and briefly dabbles in self-mutilation, Noelle hates the fact that her mother can't ever stay with a boyfriend very long and always has them on the move across the country.

Nonetheless, Donna and Joe eventually hit it off and become a couple, and he even agrees to resumed a long dormant fishing career by taking out a boat formerly owned by testy resident Harmon King (LEO BURMESTER) but now in the possession of Frankie and Lou.

Things are about to change, however, in ways that no one could imagine. After running into bush pilot Smilin' Jack (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON) at the local bar and with whom he has a mysteriously strained relationship, Joe similarly runs into his half-brother, Bobby (CASEY SIEMASZKO), who's shown up wanting his help.

A series of unexpected events then leads to Joe, Donna and Noelle being stranded on a remote Alaskan shoreline with little hope of rescue. From that point on, and as the days and weeks pass, the three do what they can to survive.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast or of director John Sayles' work, it's not very likely.
For language.
  • DAVID STRATHAIRN plays a longtime local whose laid back and reserved persona are only a shell of his former, potential-filled self that was destroyed due to a tragic boating accident. As he cautiously gets involved with Donna, he does end up sleeping with her and also drinks some. ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO plays a single mother who goes through boyfriends as quickly as she does her stage songs. She also smokes, uses strong profanity, sleeps with Joe, and has a tenuous relationship with Noelle whom she drags from one home to the next.
  • VANESSA MARTINEZ plays that troubled daughter who's preoccupied with death/suicide and self mutilation (in one scene she repeatedly slices her own arm).
  • KATHRYN GRODY and RITA TAGGART play two lesbian businesswomen.
  • LEO BURMESTER plays a testy factory worker who wants his boat back from them and cusses and drinks.
  • CASEY SIEMASZKO plays Joe's half-brother whose drug dealings get his brother and Donna and Noelle into big trouble. He also cusses.
  • KRIS KRISTOFFERSON plays a local bush pilot who will do nearly anything for money (including formerly running drugs) and is possibly now a bad guy.


    OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
    According to the dictionary, "Limbo" is defined as "the abode of just or innocent souls excluded from the beatific vision but not condemned to further punishment," "a region or condition of oblivion or neglect," "a state or place of confinement," and/or "an intermediate place or state."

    Described by a diary passage found in director John Sayles intriguing film of the same title, limbo isn't heaven, it's too cold to be hell, and certainly isn't purgatory because there's no end to it. No matter the definition, that limbo theme permeates Sayles' film, from the richly drawn characters and their lives to an unresolved ending that may leave audiences perplexed and/or irritated, but ultimately is in keeping with the film's overall nature.

    Making his twelfth film, Sayles ("Lone Star," "Men With Guns") delivers yet another slow-paced but ultimately intriguing feature that manages to get under your skin. While it's certainly not for everyone's tastes and features some odd and seemingly inappropriately used scene insertions and editing, the film nonetheless turns out to be quite good.

    You have to leave it to Sayles, one of the cinema's most prolific independent filmmakers. Not only does he finance his own films -- thus ensuring him complete artistic control -- but he also gives most of them a unique and unconventional nature that makes them refreshing to watch. That especially holds true for critics who, for the most part, repeatedly have to see the same types of films over and over again.

    As such, this film starts off as one sort of story and ends in a completely different fashion, all while still managing to carry its limbo-related theme throughout. Sayles wisely doesn't hammer home this symbolism, however, but instead allows it to ooze forth from the characters and their situational predicaments.

    The signs of that are scattered throughout the story. A cannery is closing and its employees are uncertain about their future. Joe has remained in his own private limbo for the past two decades and then enters a new type with his relationship with Donna. Meanwhile, she and her daughter exist in their own versions. Even the characters described in a discovered diary carry that theme with them.

    While all of that may sound like a depressing state of affairs, Sayles excellent writing keeps it from getting too heavy handed and the above par performances keep things interesting. In addition, and about midway through the story, he suddenly jerks the steering wheel, so to speak, and sends the story careening off into an entirely different and completely unexpected direction. That not only revives one's interest in the story and its characters, but also keeps that theme running, although disguising it under the newly displayed Swiss Family Robinson motif.

    Then there's the matter of the extremely unconventional ending. Showing an exorbitant amount of cinematic intestinal fortitude, Sayles leaves the audience in the same state of limbo as those they've been watching in the movie.

    While it's a move no major studio would allow and is certain to irritate many moviegoers, it actually makes sense (regarding the film's title and recurring theme) and should prove to generate some heated, but welcomed debate about what really happens next in the story. It's a sort of "you fill in the blanks" scheme and while some may hate it, I actually found it fun -- after the initial "you must be kidding" reaction.

    Beyond all of that, the film is filled with a great cast and they deliver compelling and great performances. One of the better, underrated actors working today, David Strathairn ("Simon Birch," "The River Wild") perfectly plays his "broken" character haunted by a tragic past. With our hindsight into his character's former difficulties, and his subtle nuances of displaying them from under his otherwise quiet demeanor, Strathairn delivers a wonderful performance.

    As does Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio ("The Abyss," and an Oscar nominee for "The Color of Money") as the single mom who can keep neither her boyfriends nor her daughter happy. Beyond doing her own singing for the role -- she also does an excellent job of portraying her character. Although hers is not always the most likeable character, Mastrantonio certainly keeps her interesting.

    Supporting performances from the likes of Vanessa Martinez ("Lone Star") as the troubled teen, Casey Siemaszko ("Milk Money") as the equally in trouble half brother and even Kris Kristofferson ("Lone Star") in a small, but important role, are all decent.

    Shot on location in and around Juneau, the film and five-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Haskell Wexler (with wins for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Bound for Glory") beautifully capture the wonderful Alaskan landscape that also plays a key part in the story. Such high production values certainly give the picture more of a "studio" feel than one would imagine coming from an independent production such as this.

    Although there are some odd edits, a few rather short scenes that appear seemingly more out of necessity than natural flow of the story, and an interesting, but standalone moment in a bar where the characters' dialogue overlaps as it might in a theatrical stage production, the rest of the technical merits are fine.

    While the film won't appeal to everyone and the ending might irritate those who stick around long enough to see it, Sayles latest film is intriguing material. As unconventional as its maker, "Limbo" introduces and then leaves several questions unanswered, but is compelling enough and features an appropriately topical ending that should have everyone talking about it once the lights come up. Not perfect, but certainly worth checking out, we give the film a 6.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the content found in this R-rated drama. Profanity earns the film that rating, and includes the use of more than 10 "f" words along with other profanities and colorful phrases. Violence is heavy due to an off-camera (but heard) murder via a shooting, and the culprits then threaten other characters by shooting at then later hunting for them.

    As such, those scenes and several others may be suspenseful and/or unsettling for some viewers. Directly related, several characters display bad attitudes, and some tense family moments are present between a single mom and her troubled and depressed teenage daughter who's curious about death and briefly dabbles in self-mutilation.

    Some smoking and drinking also occur, and there's talk of drug dealers and people running drugs for them. Beyond all of that, there's implied sex between two adults, two characters are identified as lesbians (but we never see any activity) and some obviously unrelated scenes are set in a fish cannery complete with fish blood and guts.

    Although it's doubtful many kids will probably want to see this film, we suggest that you take a closer look at the listed content should you be concerned about its appropriateness for anyone in your home.

  • People have wine at a wedding reception.
  • Donna repeats what she said to a former boyfriend upon breaking up with him: "I'm older than you. I've got a kid. I don't smoke as much dope as you do."
  • Harmon drinks beer while fishing.
  • On the last day at work, Harmon asks "Who wants a drink?" and we then later see him and others drinking in a bar (he drinking a shot of liquor). We also see Joe and Donna drinking there as well.
  • Later we see Harmon and others still drinking (with the bartender pouring drinks for them).
  • People have drinks in the bar again, including Donna and Smilin' Jack.
  • Joe drinks a beer.
  • Bobby admits that he's been running drugs for some dealers and that some of them earlier gave him "a pound of hash" and that his "clients" were high on their trip the whole time. He then mentions that he dumped his last shipment overboard when he saw the authorities coming.
  • We learn that Smilin' Jack used to dump marijuana bales from his plane for drug dealers.
  • We see (in several scenes) dead fish being processed through a canning facility where their heads are chopped off and their bodies slit open (with some guts being removed). As such, the results are rather bloody, with blood covering the equipment and floors and the gloves and aprons worn by the workers.
  • We see Noelle cutting slices into her arm with a razor blade. Her arm is consequently bloody and we see blood dripping from those wounds.
  • We see the hand of a dead body that's been in the water for several days (it's somewhat bloated and chalky looking).
  • Bobby has both for being a drug transporter and getting Joe, Donna and Noelle involved in his problems.
  • Some drug dealers who shoot a man and threaten others have both.
  • Noelle has some of both toward her mom for never being able to stay with a boyfriend and always having them be on the move.
  • Harmon is generally a disagreeable sort who swindled Frankie and Lou in the past.
  • We learn that Smilin' Jack will do pretty much anything for money, including transporting drugs and may or may not be a bad guy after all.
  • A person tells the story of Joe's boat sinking and two people dying and we later see a nightmare version of the end of that as Joe surfaces from under the water and yells for help.
  • A scene where Noelle holds a scissors blade to her face and later repeatedly cuts her arm with a razorblade may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • Onboard a ship, Joe, Donna and Noelle hear gunshots, see the approaching gunmen, climb onto the boat's deck and then jump into the water to swim for safety. The men fire shots at them as well.
  • The next morning, those gunmen come looking for the threesome, often coming close to finding them.
  • From that point on and as the threesome tries to survive, such scenes may be unsettling and/or suspenseful to some viewers.
  • We see the hand of a dead body that's been in the water for several days (it's somewhat bloated and chalky looking).
  • Handgun: Used by Harmon to shoot a large fish he's caught.
  • Handgun: We see Bobby pulling one out of his bags.
  • Handguns/Rifles: Used by drug dealers to shoot a man (not seen, but heard) and to shoot at others.
  • Phrases: "Scared sh*tless," "Dykes" and what sounded like "Butt nibblers" (for lesbians), "Bozo," "Beat to hell," "Scum," "Busting balls" and "Nuggets," "Balls" and "Nuts" (for testicles).
  • While telling a story, Harmon gives "the finger" while making a point.
  • Noelle, who's a troubled teen and possibly suicidal, briefly presses a scissors blade to her face. Later, she repeatedly cuts her arm with a razorblade (self mutilation).
  • None.
  • A moderate amount of suspenseful music plays in several scenes.
  • A song contains several uses of the word "hell."
  • At least 13 "f" words, 14 "s" words, 8 hells, 3 asses, 3 damns, 1 S.O.B., and 3 uses of "G- damn," 2 of "Jesus" and "Oh my God" and 1 use each of "Oh Christ" and "Christ" as exclamations.
  • Frankie and Lou are lesbians, but beyond being told that, we don't see any related activity.
  • After seeing Joe and Donna kissing, we then see them under the covers of his bed, implying that they've had sex. As they make small talk, she mentions that she's never slept with a drummer. She then states that she doesn't know if Noelle is a virgin or not.
  • Donna shows a bit of cleavage.
  • We briefly see Donna in her bra and Joe in his underwear after they've stripped off their freezing- cold, wet clothes.
  • As Noelle reads from a diary it mentions the narrator (a girl) talking about a man getting on top of her (and feeling the warmth of his breath on her) and her wishing that "he'd come soon" (but it's not entirely clear if she means that in a sexual way or not).
  • Donna smokes around six times, while people in a bar also smoke.
  • Noelle is very upset with her mom for breaking up yet again with a boyfriend and moving them out one more time (and tells her, "You're the mistake").
  • Bobby and Joe are half-brothers who've rarely seen each other. Bobby apologizes for not making it to their father's funeral, but Joe says it's no big deal, that he hadn't seen their dad for several years.
  • Noelle talks to Joe about never knowing her father and having some half-brothers and sisters that she's never met.
  • How one would survive if stranded for days/weeks in the wilderness.
  • Noelle's troubled/suicidal thoughts and concerns (she asks what it must be like to drown, she briefly does some self-mutilation, etc...).
  • Single parents who date and their children's reaction to that.
  • The battle between business and tourism-based concerns (an official wants a timber business to keep the exterior views of their lumber business in a pristine state for the tourists to see).
  • We see Noelle cutting slices into her arm with a razor blade.
  • Harmon uses a handgun to shoot a large fish he's caught.
  • A woman briefly mentions that someone "blew their brains out" earlier in the year.
  • Gunmen shoot a man dead (not seen) and then come after others who they shoot at as they swim away from the boat they were on.

  • Reviewed May 21, 1999 / Posted June 11, 1999

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