Didn't someone once define man as the storytelling animal? I doubt this would apply to someone like Slobodan Milosevic but it certainly does to John Sayles, who's spent the last three decades telling tales in as many different forms as possible, including the short story, the novel and the film.

So it should come as no surprise that in certain ways, "Limbo" is more controlled by a novelist's than a filmmaker's imagination. It re-creates the old pleasures of the prose narrative: detail, irony, introspection, thought. Its subject is nominally the possible redemption (via love) of a haunted Alaskan fisherman who feels responsible for an accident that claimed two lives many years ago. But it's really about the protoplasm of Sayles's life: stories themselves.

It encompasses nearly all the narrative forms known to man, from campfire yarns to rediscovered diaries to oral folklore to the most vulgar melodramatic tricks (the ending, for one). It's part adventure story, part character story and part dysfunctional family story. It's got villains who carry guns and villains who smile as they betray you. Sayles is a Scheherazade with a thousand and one tales to tell. In the space of two hours, he tells most of them.

In the foreground is Joe Gastineau, the haunted fisherman. And who better to play such a man than David Strathairn, the star of Sayles's "Matewan" and "Eight Men Out." Sayles always gets his best out of Strathairn, who hardly makes an impression when working with other directors. With his forlorn eyes and quiet dignity and strength, he has the capacity to suggest reservoirs of both knowledge and regret hidden behind his taciturnity.

We discover Joe working as a handyman at an Alaskan resort. He's the quiet, dependable one, who can fix anything without fuss or sweat, whom all the others (including the resort's lesbian owners) have come to trust. He's the center of the story, but Sayles sees so much humanity in even the minor characters--the lesbian couple, a fisherman whose boat they've come to control, a resort developer, fellows sitting at the bar--that you sense he could have told their stories just as easily.

At a resort function, Joe meets a singer who's just dumped her abusive boyfriend (the band leader). Again Sayles's control is extraordinary and he makes us see everything about Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in a second. Though she's a show-biz professional, she's in its lowest sub-basement, a traveling lounge performer who roams from gig to gig without much coherence in her life. This aimless existence--only the grace of the music saves it, and singing itself is a form of storytelling--is made more difficult by the presence of her daughter Noelle (the sweetly incandescent Vanessa Martinez, who was in Sayles's great "Lone Star"). What distinguishes Noelle besides her melancholy and her sensitivity is her talent: She's a writer, we'll learn, with a rare gift for feeling and expressing the pain of others.

The movie follows as these three form a tentative union, a kind of ersatz family that yearns secretly to be the real thing. But it's the intercession of the real thing that sends the story veering toward violent chaos.

Joe, self-exiled from the sea he loved because of the accident, is asked by his employers to take their fishing boat out and try to turn a profit. He returns to the work he loves and remembers that he loves it. That rebirth of self opens him up to the love he feels for Donna, or maybe it's the other way around. In any event, for just a few minutes, Joe's life is in balance: He has a job he loves and a family he loves. By all American standards, he has at last made it.

But then Joe's feckless brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) shows up, needing a favor, and against his better judgment, Joe agrees. He'll take Joe up north on his boat to meet some clients and, for the pleasure of it, take Noelle and Donna along.

Here the movie changes tone almost radically. It's almost as if it's taking its cue from American literature, from two of the century's great novelists. It's been a Fitzgerald story in its first half, a story of society, family, commerce, the workings and strivings of people trying to get along and get better, a tale of romantic yearning under a pedestrian surface.

Now, however, it becomes a Hemingway story. It's set on the edge. It loses its narrative sophistication and its larger view of society in favor of a rawer primitivism, where the issues cease to be "Will I rise in the world?" but become "Will I survive in the world?"

For Bobby's destiny is violent, and in his travails, he hopelessly enmeshes Joe, Noelle and Donna. They flee to an island, almost like the first Man, Woman and Child; they try to survive the elements, and the predators who hunt them. If you can adjust to the jarring switch in the movie's very identity (no problem here), the second half becomes a kind of lean, driven machine, almost mythic in its quest for primal realities, as these three struggle to survive. Again, it's Sayles, not Hollywood: These issues are low-key, understated, never hyped.

Possibly you have by now heard of the film's "controversial" ending. This is as inevitable--given the movie's obsession with story tropes--as it is, alas, unsatisfying. I cannot reveal it, but I will reveal my disappointment in it. Whether the choice is between ladies or tigers or between life and death, we poor people in the darkened audience have given our emotions over to the storyteller and we want him to do his job exactly: We want him to tell us. That is his sworn obligation. That is what's noble about what he does, and although Sayles seems to be extending a hand to us and letting us write the climax, I can't help but believe it would be better for all if he did the work.

Limbo (126 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3 and the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7) is rated R for profanity, violence and sex.

CAPTION: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn and Vanessa Martinez in John Sayles's multistory account of a fisherman's life.