In Limbo, writer/director Ivan Sen enhances his signature Outback noir style with a smart blend of genre motifs. The film is a slow burn, but when it ramps up, the reveals are remarkable: a maze of complicated emotions that the filmmaker conceals within a simple premise and a stark visual style. Limbo‘s arid setting has a beauty that seems contradictory, but is no less absorbing. It perfectly coincides with the veiled pain that emanates from within the characters.
Dabbing in splashes of the neo-western, Sen fashions a gripping crime drama and mystery thriller that opens up into a humanist story about facing the past in order to connect with a future. Limbo contains a striking sociopolitical message about the consequences of colonialism on Indigenous people in Australia. As it progresses, the film becomes less about the narrative throughline and more about the people.
Travis Hurley (Simon Baker, The Mentalist) arrives in the isolated town of Limbo to investigate a twenty-year-old cold case involving the murder of a local young Indigenous girl, Charlotte Hayes. As a white man, he is the prototypical outsider. He’s also a man of contradictions, a drug addict who listens to religious sermons on tape, and his overly controlled outward manner seems ill suited to deal with the people he must interrogate.
His investigation begins with the girl’s grieving sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) and brother Charlie (Rob Collins), neither of which is co-operative. Both are understandably suspicious of this new effort to get to the truth, basically a too-little-too-late scenario. Who could blame them when the previous white detectives showed so little interest in solving the case? Initially, they have no more interest in talking to him than he seems to have in them. The brother of the now deceased chief suspect is even more stubborn, a man teetering on the brink of sanity. Everyone in this film seems to posses a degree of detachment both from themselves and from the situation. It’s all a matter of degrees.
Something about the family’s displaced emotions awakens a human connection in this jaded detective. He steps up his efforts to get past their defences and, when he does, their pain becomes apparent. Baker is riveting as Hurley, managing to convey a tangle of emotion despite the restrained traits of both his character and the place. Both Wanganeen and Collins give understated but heartbreaking performances that cut deep. As a result, the viewer is drawn into Hurley’s quest for the truth.
Besides this emotional trajectory, Sen engages the viewer through his use of the landscape. Limbo is a mining town, full of labyrinthine tunnels underground. It’s an apt metaphor for both the situation and the characters’ interactions. Limbo is an arid, unforgiving setting, a place where the people live in below ground dwellings called ‘dugouts’. These are set into the rock to make existence bearable during the summers when daytime temperatures are high. The inhabitants are thus present but hidden.
Sen transforms the town of Coober Pedy, a place in Southern Australia, into the fictional town of Limbo. The sun-drenched black and white photography appears to conceal much, but Sen’s insistence on this detachment makes the viewer lean in all the more in an attempt to unearth its secrets. This is something that fans of his work will be familiar with and, in this case, even for those new to his work, it has a particularly strong pull.
Despite the obvious nature of the associations with the word limbo as a concept, as a state of being, as a place, Sen’s deft manipulation of genre conventions lifts this noirish crime drama out of the ordinary. The state of being in limbo in this film results in characters that initially exist as phantoms. That’s part of the point. To his credit, this filmmaker moves beyond that to create flesh and blood characters from an inhospitable situation.
Limbo is a haunting film that burrows into the dark recesses of the soul to disturb our sometimes overly comfortable beliefs in humanity. It’s not without hope but the film does take the viewer on a heavy albeit rewarding journey. Returning to his career-long examination of the injustices that indigenous peoples continue to experience, Ivan Sen creates a piercing cry for justice.