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  Limbo The Great Outdoors
Year: 1999
Director: John Sayles
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson, Herminio Ramos, Dawn McInturff, Casey Seimaszko, Kathryn Grody, Tom Biss, Rita Taggart, Leo Burmester, Michael Laskin, Jimmy MacDonell
Genre: Drama, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: In an Alaskan fishing town, the fishing industry is beginning to pass the community by. At a wedding, two local businessmen discuss the way forward for the town, one believing timber is the right path to take, the other of the opinion that tourism is the future, and the logging should be kept away from the coast. Meanwhile, the singer at the wedding, Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) announces from the stage she will no longer be performing with the band she is with, having just broken up with the leader. After one last song, she leaves them behind and finds someone to take her back into town: Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), a man she will get to know very well...

It's not called Limbo for nothing, as you will see when you watch it. Scripted by cult auteur John Sayles, who also directed, it tells a tale of life not so much in the balance as suspended nowhere in particular, and all those who saw it were provoked by its ending, either to think there was no better way of finishing it, or to be completely frustrated by it. The film takes an unexpected turn to adventure thriller in its second half; most writers would have cut to the chase, building its characters through the experiences with danger that they endure rather than spending its first few acts in studying their personalities, and this also frustrated many viewers.

However, isn't part of being in limbo about frustration? Donna certainly thinks so, as she is dissatisfied with her career and can't stick with a man for long before she grows sick of him, much to the bottled up dismay of her troubled daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). Noelle resents being shuttled around the country at the whim of her mother, and her budding talent is being suffocated by her lifestyle and also budding self-loathing which sees her self-harming to vent her anger. Joe could just be another man on Donna's ever-lengthening list, but something happens to bring the three of them closer than they could have expected.

Joe happens to work with Noelle, and she has a secret crush on him, but Joe is oblivious to this - imagine how Noelle feels when she realises who her mother's latest conquest is. But ex-fisherman Joe has other worries, and is haunted by a tragedy in his past which he can't get over; as someone observes, he is a changed man now, and Strathairn quietly conveys a man struggling with demons which he will never share with anyone else. The cast are uniformly excellent, in both the main roles and the smaller, each bringing significance to the people they play, from Mastrantonio's permanently unfulfilled mother to Kris Kristofferson's cheerful but hard edged pilot who has an uncomfortable link with Joe.

Eventually, after all these storylines with the fish canning industry leaving the town and Joe semi-reluctantly going back to his old job after being encouraged by a lesbian couple living in the area who have the use of a boat, the real plotline emerges. Joe's untrustworthy half-brother (Casey Seimaszko) re-enters his life and one thing leads to another, with Joe accompanying him on a boat trip. Wanting to get to know Donna better, he invites her and Noelle along too, and Donna wants to reciprocate the interest he's showing, even though she's not the outdoors type as Noelle is fond of pointing out. What happens brings out a new bond between the three of them, but due to the ending we remain unaware of whether the experience will jolt them out of limbo or if they have reached a dead end. You can admire Sayles for sticking to his guns, but it's doubtful most viewers will be satisfied with the result, which is a shame considering the care that all involved bring to the film. Music by Mason Daring.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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John Sayles  (1950 - )

American writer and director, whose independent films are strong on social and cultural relationships. He got his break writing exploitation movies for Roger Corman: Piranha, The Lady in Red, Alligator and Battle Beyond the Stars, and went on to direct his first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven.

A career as a writer (The Howling, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) and script doctor financed his subsequent movies: lesbian love story Lianna, romance Baby It's You, offbeat sci-fi The Brother from Another Planet, union drama Matewan, baseball scandal Eight Men Out, ensemble piece City of Hope, Lone Star, Men with Guns, survival adventure Limbo, Sunshine State, political satire Silver City and war drama Amigo. Also in small roles as an actor (Something Wild, Malcolm X, Matinee).

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