When Senior Constable Travis Hurley (Simon Baker) rolls into the aptly-but-not-so-subtly-named town of Limbo in outback South Australia, it’s the last place on earth he wants to be. The grizzled, apathetic officer is in the eponymous town to investigate the reopened cold case of Charlotte Hayes, a local indigenous woman who was murdered over 20 years ago. Travis’ work in Limbo seems like a fruitless endeavour as the prime suspect has passed away and the victim’s estranged siblings, Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) and Charlie (Rob Collins) are reluctant help the investigation. But as he delves deeper into his investigation and more unpleasant truths are uncovered, he gains an important new insight on the case, becoming increasingly sympathetic towards Emma and Charlie, while at the same time confronting the injustice and negligence towards aboriginal people from the very institution he upholds.
Writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, colourist, composer and all round one man band of the film, Ivan Sen has dabbled in outback neo-noirs before with Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone. But Limbo is less of a pulpy genre exercise and more of a poignant and sombre mood piece. It’s a detective drama where the intrigue and mystery whilst compelling and gives no straightforward answers, ultimately is secondary to the piercing indictment on the Australian justice system, but also Sen’s patient and pensive character study of these people who are, both literally and metaphorically, stuck in Limbo.Travis is a cold, jaded cop with a broken marriage and a heroin addiction with fire-and-brimstone evangelical sermons seemingly on repeat in his car. Emma and Charlie remain haunted by what has happened to their sister and cannot move on with their lives no matter how hard they try. The suspect’s reclusive and suspicious brother, Joseph (Nicholas Hope) feels an overwhelming amount of guilt for what happened to Charlotte, but may also be hiding something. All of these characters are stuck in their own Limbo, desperate for salvation of some kind and they become each other’s catalysts for change to allow them to move forward.
Ivan Sen has always been a brilliant visual storyteller, and in Limbo, he gets to flex those formalist attributes more than he ever has, especially when using place and setting as character. Shooting in Coober Pedy with very striking black and white cinematography, he transforms the setting of an outback town to a surreal, other-worldly environment. Giant craters in the ground from opal mining and the underground dwellings of the town all emphasise how this literal manifestation of Limbo is like a space between worlds; where time almost ceases for the people who exist within it.That’s expressed through the characters too. Limbo is a film of deafening silences that convey so much more than words ever could. With immersive sound design and very sparse dialogue and music, so much of Limbo is put into the hands of the performers, specifically their ability to tell a story and convey emotion without words.
Sen specifically wanted to explore Baker’s often under-utilised non-verbal talents for the film and has reaped the rewards. Baker transforms himself with a role that is the exact opposite of the arrogant, handsome, always the smartest guy in the room persona he was known for on The Mentalist. His ability to bring so much emotional depth and tell you everything about this character from just a few glances is something to behold, as the black and white accentuates every little rugged, weathered facial feature; each wrinkle giving you more information about him.
Limbo is a monochromatic meditation on grief, redemption and the impact of the justice system on Indigenous Australians delivered through the vessel of a hard boiled neo-noir. Ivan Sen continues to prove himself as one of Australia’s most unique and important cinematic voices with another excellent feature outing.
Limbo is in Australian Cinemas from May 18 via Dark Matter Distribution.
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