Limbo (1999 film)

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Limbo (1999 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Sayles
Produced by Maggie Renzi
Screenplay by John Sayles
Music by Mason Daring
Cinematography Haskell Wexler
Edited by John Sayles
Green/Renzi Productions
Distributed by Screen Gems
Release date
Running time
126 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget under $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.


The film is set in fictional Port Henry, Alaska, a town undergoing stress as the local economy switches from an industrial one based around the canning and paper industries towards a tourism and leisure based model. Joe Gastineaux (David Strathairn) 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 (Vanessa Martinez) who also works for Frankie and Lou, at an event which they are working, Noelle's mother Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a lounge singer, breaks up with her live in boyfriend and asks Joe for help in moving. The two of them 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 peripatetic bohemian lifestyle, this is exacerbated when Donna begins dating Joe, who Noelle also had a crush on. At a bar 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 (Kris Kristofferson).

Things change 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: Bobby had been 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 up 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 wait for rescue. 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 steals a look 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 through the diary, they arduously maintain a signal fire and scrape some food from the seashore.

After a week and a half a seaplane approaches and lands. It's piloted by Smilin' Jack Johannson, who explains that he is looking for supplies, his radio is busted and that he doesn't have enough fuel to fly any of them out, he privately tells Joe that he was hired by a couple of men to look around and find three people roughing it. When told of the murder of Bobby he expresses sympathy and promises to return the next day with "The Calvary" and rescue them. Joe, who does not trust Smilin' 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 Smilin' Jack.



Critical response[edit]

Limbo received generally positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that the film has a 72% fresh rating, based on thirty-nine reviews.[4] 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."[5] 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."[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. ^ Limbo at Rotten Tomatoes.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, June 4, 1999. Accessed: August 4, 2013.
  6. ^ Null, Christopher (n.d.). "Limbo". AMC. Retrieved August 4, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Limbo". Retrieved August 4, 2013. 

External links[edit]