There’s a brief montage near the beginning of writer-director John Sayles’ new movie during which various denizens of a bar in the small fishing town of Port Henry, Alaska, are shown spinning very similar tall tales. We don’t hear the whole stories, just a series of intercut and crucial punch lines, about fog that can blind, cold air that can kill and freezing water that can swallow a person whole. Throw in an occasional irate bear, and the message is clear: Alaska is not a fit environment for human beings to inhabit. They simply don’t belong there.

Sayles’ movies often have a strong sense of place which serves not just as backdrop for his stories, but determines their narrative tone. New Jersey inspired his most chaotic storytelling (City of Hope), just as the improbable beauty of Ireland moved him to fantasy (The Secret of Roan Inish). The Tex-Mex border was an illusory obstruction that couldn’t stave off interracial and incestuous passions (Lone Star), while the story of an unnamed Latin American country began in despair and led, out of desperate necessity, to Utopian myth (Men Without Guns).

Limbo begins as a tentative love story between just the sort of characters you’d expect to find in a naturally inhospitable backwater – resilient people with dubious pasts. David Strathairn, a veteran of several Sayles movies, brings his low-keyed and somewhat bruised charm to the role of Joe Gastineau, a former fisherman who gave up his trade when a boating accident he was in led to the death of two people. Joe becomes involved – slowly and after much well-written Saylesian banter – with a lounge singer named Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who shares both Joe’s world-weariness and his essential decency. Donna has a troubled young teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez), a sensitive type who feels like a constant stranger and has withdrawn into a cocoon of self-loathing.

But just as the viewer is settling into the small but well-drawn drama of this trio’s relationship, a rather contrived plot device leaves them stranded, literally, on an island in the middle of nowhere. The limbo which the small town of Port Henry held at bay had always been waiting and now asserts itself. In a primal shift of perspective, we realize that Joe and Donna’s appealing character traits aren’t enough to save them from freezing to death, and an emotional breakthrough with the miserable daughter isn’t going to hold back starvation.

But Sayles takes his trip into limbo even further, all the way to a willfully unsatisfying ending. Obviously, it’s an attempt to instill in the audience some sense of what "limbo" actually means. It’s a perverse ending and a bold one, though not everyone, even after two hours of sad romance, will be willing to make the leap into the void.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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