Photo by K. C. Bailey

WEIGHED AGAINST OUR WRETCHEDLY HEEDLESS age, John Sayles' humane populism guarantees that each new film he makes seems more old-fashioned, more anachronistic than the one before. That's a compliment: American movies, if they pay attention at all, divide the working class into cops, robbers and salts of the earth, while positioning the world between Los Angeles and New York either as generic Elsewhere or as a set location for an embittered neo-noir. Sayles, without benefit of the vital tradition of working-class narrative that nourishes British film (only Victor Nunez and a handful of lefty documentarians do comparable work in the U.S.), plugs tenaciously away at his lonely celebration of ordinary Joes in far-flung American outposts.

For all his championship of the working stiff, Sayles has never succumbed to Rockwellian fantasies of a folksy proletariat that chirps along with family and community intact while around them the middle class lies down and dies of alienation. Sayles is the Bruce Springsteen of film: His bewildered characters walk wounded or drift, trying to hold body and soul together in a netherworld of shattered relationships and endangered communities whose markers for living have all but collapsed. Through them the director taps into a malaise that speaks as precisely to rural heartland dwellers as it does to the average urban cokehead, and it's surely in part what made Lone Star — a lucky acquisition for Sony Classics — a surprise hit, giving Sayles enough Hollywood clout to make a film for Sony proper with a budget that's hefty for him and a steal for them.

As in Lone Star, Limbo is set in border country in more ways than one. Contrary to the insanely gung ho travelogue voice-over that we hear as the movie opens, it's a fish-eat-fish world in Sayles' Alaska, where lost souls with names like Corky, X-Man and Smilin' Jack gather in darkened barrooms to live down their pasts and reinvent their futures. No Northern Exposure this. Far from being wacky eccentrics, Sayles' characters are broken people treading water as they try not to rub salt in their own wounds. Reprising his taciturn role as Mary McDonnell's love interest in Passion Fish, Sayles' college pal and longtime collaborator David Strathairn plays Joe Gastineau, a former fisherman who, for 25 years, has been smarting from a terrible accident for which he holds himself responsible. Though long fallen into disrepair, Joe's libido sits up and quivers when it meets Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, in a welcome return), an itinerant bar singer with a checkered love life and a troubled teenage daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), who has a prior crush on Joe.

LIMBO IS A FILM ABOUT OPENING UP, A FILM whose heart and soul rest with Sayles' tactful handling of the cagey, provisional love affair that blooms between Joe and Donna. Whether he's playing a predatory pimp (L.A. Confidential), a blind computer wizard (Sneakers) or the impacted decent sorts he plays for Sayles, Strathairn has a gift for enigma that establishes, largely through gesture, a powerful inner life, while Mastrantonio, who sings her own numbers in a sexy, throaty hum, wears her troubles with a worn dignity that silently evokes a woman weighed down but unvanquished by her own history. The movie's pleasures lie in its relaxed, episodic pacing and incidental scene-setting: Joe, out in a boat again at last, fishing with a look of quiet joy; Joe and Donna in bed, making light of their pasts; Donna lost in song; Noelle quietly contemptuous of the fat-cat developers to whom she's feeding canapés while they plan to turn Alaska into “a giant theme park.”

Sayles' characters are invariably at their most expressive when saying very little. Given that Sayles is an award-winning novelist who began his career as a screenwriter and finances his films by script-doctoring, it's surprising how much he weakens his films with dialogue transparently geared to drive the plot or draw life lessons. Two-thirds of the way through Limbo, Sayles appears to have smote his forehead, cried, “Drama! We must have more drama!” and revved a lovely mood piece about three defrosting hearts into a half-assed thriller. Shots are fired, parking Joe, Donna and Noelle without food or water on a deserted island, where they are bombarded with Outward Bound hurdles and forced into the kind of instant intimacy that leads inexorably to moral improvement and nature study. Whereupon Sayles wheels around with an ending that seems to suggest that, after all, life's pressing dilemmas turn on whether it's okay to trust Kris Kristofferson.

“I like to make movies about people,” Sayles once told an interviewer. “I'm not interested in cinematic art.” One begs to differ, not only based on Limbo, which is graced by Haskell Wexler's striking lighting of Alaska's watery beauty, but also on Sayles' gorgeously foggy Irish fable, The Secret of Roan Inish, or Lone Star, set off in shades of luscious yellow. On and off, Sayles, who got his start with Roger Corman, has been pretty adventurous with form, admittedly with mixed results. Though the inventive Brother From Another Planet is a gas, Lianna, a lesbian love story about which all I can remember are two women writhing joylessly on a bed while the soundtrack murmured in French, is a well-intended fiasco, while Baby It's You is a sweet trifle. But it was his first feature, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, that set the template for Sayles' best work, his “old-fashioned” dramas of ordinary life in a falling-apart world. In all his body of work there is no image as powerful as the final scene in City of Hope, a study in urban decay, where Strathairn, playing a town vagrant, wrings his hands and cries over and over, “We need help! We need help!”

LIMBO | Written and directed by JOHN SAYLES | Produced by MAGGIE RENZI Released by Sony Pictures | At Sunset 5, Westside Pavilion

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