Limbo (1999 film)

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Limbo (1999 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Sayles
Produced byMaggie Renzi
Screenplay byJohn Sayles
Music byMason Daring
CinematographyHaskell Wexler
Edited byJohn Sayles
Green/Renzi Productions
Distributed byScreen Gems
Release date
Running time
126 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budgetunder $10,000,000[1]
Box office$2,160,710[2]

Limbo is a 1999 drama film written, produced, edited, and directed by American independent filmmaker John Sayles. The drama features Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez and Kris Kristofferson,[3] it is the first theatrical film to be released and distributed by Screen Gems.


Port Henry, Alaska, is a town undergoing stress as the local economy switches from an industrial one based around the canning and paper industries towards a tourism-based model. Joe Gastineaux is a former high school basketball star and fisherman who quit fishing after some undisclosed tragedy, he now works as a handyman, particularly for Frannie and Lou, a lesbian couple who own the local resort hotel. Joe is friends with teenager Noelle De Angelo who also works for Frankie and Lou. At an event which they are working, Noelle's mother Donna, a lounge singer, breaks up with her live in boyfriend and asks Joe for help in moving; the two become close and eventually begin a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Joe gets the chance to return to fishing when Frankie and Lou ask him to work a fishing boat which they have acquired as collateral from local fisherman Harmon. Donna has a strained relationship with her daughter Noelle, due mainly to Noelle's disapproval of her mother's lifestyle; this is exacerbated when Donna begins dating Joe, who Noelle had a crush on. Donna overhears the story of why Joe quit fishing: he had been involved in a deadly sinking which claimed the lives of all of his boatmates, including the brother of local bush pilot and small-time criminal "Smilin Jack" Johannson.

When Joe's dissolute half-brother Bobby shows up, he asks Joe to help crew his boat to pick up a client. Joe brings along Donna and Noelle, they dock for the night in an isolated bay and Bobby reveals the truth: he is involved in marijuana smuggling and had dumped a load overboard when he was spooked by the police. Now they are going to meet Bobby's partners to settle his debt; that night, men sneak onto the boat and kill Bobby. Joe, Donna, and Noelle flee to a nearby island where the men begin to hunt them, they take shelter in an abandoned cabin and try to survive. As they do they grow closer and Noelle finds a diary written by a teenage girl who had lived in the cabin with her family, she spends the nights reading segments of the diary to Joe and Donna. Eventually Donna looks at the diary and discovers that it is blank after the portion her daughter Noelle had read during the first two evenings. Noelle had made up most of its contents, expressing her own feelings, they maintain a signal fire and scrape some food from the seashore.

After a week and a half a seaplane piloted by Smilin' Jack Johannson lands, he says that he is looking for supplies, his radio is busted, and that he doesn't have enough fuel to fly them out. He tells Joe that he was hired by a couple of men to look for three people roughing it; when told of Bobby's murder, he expresses sympathy and promises to return the next day and rescue them. Joe, who does not trust Jack, sees the radio was removed, and remains unsure of whether the seaplane return will bring rescue or the men who killed his brother. A stressful few days of rain prevent any flights' return. One morning Joe, Donna, and Noelle gather on the beach as a seaplane flies towards them, larger than the one belonging to Jack.



Critical response[edit]

Limbo received generally positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert lauded the film and its story structure, writing, "What I liked so much about this story structure is that it confounded my expectations at every step. I expected the story to stay in Juneau, but it didn't; when it took a turn toward adventure, I thought the threat would come from nature—but it comes from men. After the three characters are stranded, I expected—I don't know what, maybe Swiss Family Robinson-style improvisation, but Sayles gradually reveals his buried theme, which is that in a place like the Alaskan wilderness you can never be sure what will happen next. And that optimism, bravery and ingenuity may not be enough."[4]

Christopher Null lambasted the ending, writing, "I can forgive many things, but using some hackneyed, whacked-out, screwed-up non-ending on a movie is unforgivable. I walked a half-mile in the rain and sat through two hours of typical, plodding Sayles melodrama to get cheated by a complete and total copout finale."[5]

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that the film has a 72% fresh rating, based on thirty-nine reviews.[6]




  • Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'Or, John Sayles; 1999.[7]
  • Independent Spirit Awards: Independent Spirit Award; Best Male Lead, David Strathairn, Best Supporting Female, Vanessa Martinez; 2000.
  • Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Sierra Award; Best Actress, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; 2000.


Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio performed four of the nine songs on the soundtrack, which also features "Lift Me Up", an original song by Bruce Springsteen.


  1. ^ Gerry Molyneaux, John Sayles, Renaissance Books, 2000 p 252.
  2. ^ Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ Limbo at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 4, 1999). "Limbo". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
  5. ^ Null, Christopher (n.d.). "Limbo". AMC. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  6. ^ Limbo at Rotten Tomatoes.
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Limbo". Retrieved August 4, 2013.

External links[edit]