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John Sayles returns to form in 'Limbo'

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John Sayles returns to form in ‘Limbo’

When I used to live a few blocks away from John Sayles in Hoboken, N.J., a friend saw him at a deli buying roast beef and a bun — separately. Once a no-budget auteur, always a no-budget auteur. He was going to make his sandwich his way — just like he makes his films (he not only writes and directs, he edits them as well).

You’ve got to respect such an independent spirit, but lately I’d started to question whether Sayles had a perverse determination to remain obscure. After the surprise success of his 1996 masterpiece, ”Lone Star” — some of it attributable to the fluke casting of breakout costar Matthew McConaughey — Sayles seemed to go out of his way to make sure his next movie, the butt-numbingly dull ”Men With Guns,” was uncommercial (subtitles + Mandy Patinkin = box office poison).

So when I heard that Sayles’ new flick, ”Limbo,” starred the highly unbankable combo of David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, I wondered if he was trying to sabotage himself again. (After all, this is a man who made a thoroughly charming children’s film and gave it the unmarketable title of ”The Secret of Roan Inish.”)

Having seen ”Limbo,” I’m pleased to report that Sayles is back in tip-top form. Strathairn and Mastrantonio are expertly cast as an ex-fisherman and a lounge singer searching for solace in the Alaskan wilderness. Like Sayles’ best movies (”Lone Star,” ”Roan,” ”City of Hope”), ”Limbo” is utterly unformulaic. That may spell doom at the summer box office, especially since the film has an intentionally ambiguous — yet poetically appropriate — ending that left one audience member in the theater where I saw it groaning, ”You’ve got to be kidding!”

He isn’t. Sayles made it clear long ago that his goal is not to please mainstream moviegoers who expect conventionally tidy wrap-ups. (At least not in the films he directs; he takes script-doctor gigs on feel-good blockbusters like ”Apollo 13” to help finance his own projects.) While he sometimes takes the notion of being a ”blue-collar filmmaker” too literally — Sayles is almost always seen wearing a denim work shirt — he is an accomplished craftsman. Unlike an indie charlatan like Henry Jaglom, who wears his technical incompetence as a badge of artistic integrity, Sayles has made huge strides visually since his shoddily shot 1980 debut, ”Return of the Secaucus 7.”

Sayles reminds me more of Spike Lee — a scrappy outsider who has grown into a gifted (if erratic) stylist, all the while maintaining his own inimitable voice. With the concept of ”independent films” becoming increasingly muddied by corporate influence, Sayles stands as a most welcome voice in the cinematic wilderness.

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