Nobody can make a John Sayles movie like John Sayles, and if you dig large side dishes of multicultural sermonizing and overproud anti-formula with your literate-indie veggie burger, you’re likely to be a repeat customer. But Sayles’s grip on visual storytelling has always been wobbly, his preachiness can be stultifying, and in strenuously bypassing some clichés, he often backs into others. Homily-free and unpretentious, Limbo bears its Saylesian dharma lightly, focusing for the first hour on a few worn-out, middle-aged nobodies with no axes, just burdens, and the small Alaskan fishing community around them. Then the script goes off-road in a way that could redefine “left field.” Just like life, Sayles might say, but Limbo feels by turns spontaneously original and blandly calculated.
You can’t help but side with Sayles on principle—the movie dispenses with “arc,” defiantly lollygagging around with Joe and Donna (David Straithairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a brooding ex-fisherman and bar singer, respectively, who start a tentative romance despite his haunted past (accidental fishing deaths) and her unhappy, self-mutilating teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The rhythms of chitchat are beautifully realized, and Sayles carefully carves out a convincing reality in the town gin mill, a locus of tale-spinning seen in a montage of conversational fragments. It’s a sweet strategy: we’ve spent so much downtime with the movie’s people that when the plot proper kicks in—Joe’s huckster brother (Casey Siemaszko) sets up a shady deal and gets Joe, Donna, and Noelle stranded on an isolated, sub-Arctic island—we’re more aware of what’s at stake for them than we’re used to.
Limbo is assembled with such high intentions and respect it’s a shame it never coalesces dramatically, or lets the characters do anything surprising. Like many Sayles movies, this one has a way of staying on the page. Still, in the current field, it might be the only studio film made for adults—Lucas-resistant codgers, this Bud’s for you.