Limbo

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Limbo

Throughout his accomplished and doggedly idiosyncratic career, writer-director John Sayles has possessed an enduring fascination with communities and the forces that paradoxically give rise to them and threaten to obliterate them. Cultural upheaval frayed the counterculture ideals of the titular group in Return Of The Secaucus Seven, tenuous unions form against the overwhelming powers-that-be in Matewan and City Of Hope, and history creates a fault line at the center of a multi-ethnic border town in his masterpiece, 1996's Lone Star. In Sayles' flawed but moving survivalist drama, Limbo, a small pocket of humanity gels around a sad-sack neighborhood bar in Juneau, Alaska. Often dubbed "the final frontier," Alaska may be home to fierce individualists, but they're still drawn like fireflies to singer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's luminous and suitably forlorn covers of Richard Thompson and Tom Waits songs. Among them is Sayles regular David Strathairn, a haunted and world-weary fisherman who romances the equally damaged Mastrantonio and soon forms a makeshift family with her melancholic daughter, Vanessa Martinez. Unfortunately, Limbo makes an abrupt and extremely clumsy about-face around its halfway point, moving the trio away from the city and into the remote wilderness. Other major contrivances follow, but the weaknesses in Sayles' story and his occasional bouts with didacticism are far outweighed by the film's exceptional intimacy and humanity. Mastrantonio and Strathairn are at their plaintive best as a fragile community unto themselves, aided considerably by the warmth of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler's photography and Sayles' fine editing, with pointed fades and dissolves that seep right into your bones. Limbo's controversial (and wonderful) ending drew catcalls when it screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But more than simply thumbing his nose at convention, Sayles questions what's really essential about these characters, making a more predictable pay-off seem irrelevant.

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