John Sayles is the kind of writer/director who works in sneaky ways. Observe a scene early in “Limbo”: Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a struggling lounge singer in Alaska, asks Joe (David Strathairn) why he quit fishing. His eyes are subtly guarded, and so, it would seem, is his answer: “Unforseen circumstances.” Funny how two words can say so much. That phrase cuts straight to the heart of “Limbo,” as much a well-acted character study of three damaged people as it is a meditation on surviving the circumstances life serves up.
There is, perhaps, no better backdrop for this kind of film than Alaska, a place brimming with natural resources, promise and, at the same time, an air of slight danger, a feeling that nature cannot be kept at a safe distance. It’s this landscape — dense with the thrill of possibility, the fear of the unknown — that creates much of the tension that pervades “Limbo.” The tight, unpredictable script and the actors finish the job. Mastrantonio and Strathairn do great things with characters prone to damming up real feelings, particularly the painful kind. But that reluctance makes Donna, who attaches herself to every loser she can find, and Joe, a man so emotionally damaged by a freak fishing accident that he barely functions, a couple of kindred spirits. Donna dies a little more each time she’s dumped by another cheating boyfriend; Joe is the walking dead. In each other, they find solace. And in Joe, Donna’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) finds a dependability she’s never had.
And then! (Trust me: The transition merits an exclamation point.) About midway through, Sayles takes “Limbo” in a totally unexpected direction, and the movie moves from a study of how three people survive everyday life to how they survive — literally — in the unforgiving Alaskan wildnerness. How do Donna, Joe and Noelle end up alone in this situation? Best to chalk it up to those unforseen circumstances. The “how” isn’t what matters, anyway. The same could be said for the final act, which will elicit either great admiration (for the way Sayles refuses to spoon-feed his audience) or flaming, uncontrollable anger (for the way Sayles refuses to spoon … you get the idea). How we arrive at the second half or the end matters less than the fact that we arrive there. “Limbo” is about how we react to the unexpected, not why it happens. A compelling rehash of “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” if you will.
And, wow, could Sayles have found better performers to make this cold old truth feel new again? Inconceivable. Martinez, who had a small role in Sayles’ “Lone Star,” goes leaps and bounds beyond the put-upon teen girl act to make Noelle memorable. She is troubled, but not because she’s misunderstood or bored. Years of playing second fiddle to her mother’s deadbeat lovers have taken a toll; she blames Donna, relentlessly, for her unhappiness, and she’s not wrong. Donna’s been a colossal letdown of a mother … and what’s incredible is that Mastrantonio makes her a sympathetic character. She’s a screw-up, but she knows it, and that weighs heavy on her mind. She messes up, maybe, for good reasons: She’s looking for the right person, someone “who understands your bullshit but is still crazy about you anyway.” Donna’s bruised but she’s an optimist right up to the end, so it’s hard not to admire her stubborn refusal to give up or give in.
Joe, however, can’t muster that kind of resolve. Strathairn, an extraordinarily gifted actor, plays Joe as tight-lipped and small. Tragedy has shrunk him inside and out, taught him not to expect anything, good or bad, so it takes him time to realize he likes Donna. The scene where he does is so quietly brilliant it defies explanation. Watch the moment Joe hears Donna sing, and pay close attention to his face. It’s the kind of acting that must be seen to be believed.
“Limbo” is that way, too. There are frustrating twists and turns that confound logic and expectation, but they serve to remind us that randomness is the rule, not the exception.