Right now I'm as excited about the medium of film as I was during my first film lit class in high school.
I've just seen John Sayles' "Limbo," a 200-proof character study so engrossing, intelligent and intellectually rewarding that by 60 minutes into the movie I was already antsy to see it a second time.
The story revolves around three people -- a mother, her daughter and her lover -- who become stranded on a remote Alaskan island during a sailboat outing that turns violent when double-crossed drug traffickers come calling for another passenger.
But while their struggle to survive and their fear that the traffickers will return to hunt them down are riveting, this plot -- which would make lesser directors itch for action sequences and outdoor thrills -- is mostly a backdrop for an astute, probing personality piece as the three face their internal demons and their uncertain fate.
The mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, "The Abyss") is a talented singer with a gorgeous voice who has all but abandon her ambitions after a lifetime of career disappointments and now bed-hops and bar-hops around the country grasping desperately for some kind of stability to make her daughter feel grounded and secure.
The embittered girl (Vanessa Martinez) harbors venomous resentment toward her mom for dragging her from dive nightclub to seedy lounge in pursuit of frustrating and dead-end gigs and she has not taken well to never starting and finishing a single year in the same school. Alienated and alone, she turns to writing to quiet her soul, but is teetering on the edge of the troubled kid chasm.
Having landed in Port Henry, Alaska, for a long-term gig at a fishermen's watering hole, Mastrantonio meets David Strathairn ("A Midsummer Night's Dream"), a reserved, honorable, but rudderless ex-fisherman haunted by the memory of a fatal boating accident.
In the first half of the film, writer-director Sayles builds a light atmosphere and a strong sense of community through a handful of colorful Port Henry locals while the film shakes out who it wants to follow more closely. As it narrows its focus, Mastrantonio and Strathairn strike up a tentative romance, each fearful of their own emotional baggage gumming up the works.
As a favor to his half-brother (Casey Siemaszko), a city slicker in town from San Diego who talks a BS streak a mile wide, Strathairn agrees to captain a sailboat run the brother hopes will appease some unhappy "business partners." He sees this trip as a bonding opportunity and invites the women along, having no idea he will be putting them in danger.
Soon they find themselves swimming for their lives toward the shore of a deeply forested island, where they hide and then must learn to survive, not knowing if they will ever be rescued.
But where such events would normally beget adventure or thrills, "Limbo" turns inward, plumbing the psyches of its trapped trio as they hole up in a long-abandon cabin.
The three central players give wonderfully manifold performances, exploring every corner of their characters' minds, especially Martinez, who got her start in Sayles' "Lone Star" and here channels all her fear and anger into the emotional reading aloud of a weather-beaten diary she discovers on the island (which turns out to be even more illuminating than it seems).
Sayles has such a insightful way with the human condition, and his deceptively simple script is rich with subtle foreshadowing and revealing dialogue. His intense focus on personalities over events is a hallmark of all his films, and here he takes that focus to the extreme with a last reel surprise that deviates wildly from the obvious finale to drive home the point that these characters' personal journeys -- and not their circumstances -- are the heart of the film.
It's a stroke of genius, really, with Sayles snubbing his nose at blockbuster brainwashing. But it caused an uproar at the preview screening I attended, when some in the audience seemed to forget that until they got mad at the movie for not kowtowing to traditionalism they were utterly absorbed.
Even with its few insignificant flaws (occasional over-dramatic lighting, occasionally understated emotions, sometimes obvious soundstage settings) "Limbo" may be Sayles' best film, made all the more admirable for going against the grain when it would have been so easy for him to wrap the movie up in an easily digestible package.
My favorite kind of movies are the ones that inspire hours of coffee shop haranguing after the credits roll. It's three days later now, and I'm still not tired of pouring over "Limbo." What a great film.