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Limbo

Simon Baker turns in a career-best performance in Ivan Sen's latest outback-set crime-thriller after the also-exceptional 'Mystery Road' and 'Goldstone'.
By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023
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UPDATE, Friday, July 7: Limbo streams via ABC iView from 8.30pm on Sunday, July 9.

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When Ivan Sen sent a police detective chasing a murdered girl and a missing woman in the Australian outback in 2013's Mystery Road and its 2016 sequel Goldstone, he saw the country's dusty, rust-hued expanse in sun-bleached and eye-scorching colour. In the process, the writer, director, co-producer, cinematographer, editor and composer used his first two Aussie noir films and their immaculately shot sights to call attention to how the nation treats people of colour — historically since its colonial days and still now well over two centuries later. Seven years after the last Jay Swan movie, following a period that's seen that character make the leap to the small screen in three television seasons, Sen is back with a disappearance, a cop, all that inimitable terrain and the crimes against its Indigenous inhabitants that nothing can hide. Amid evident similarities, there's a plethora of differences between the Mystery Road franchise and Limbo; however, one of its simplest is also one of its most glaring and powerful: shooting Australia's ochre-toned landscape in black and white.

Going monochrome in a place that's so connected with a red-, orange- and clay-heavy palette is a visually spectacular choice. Doing just that in a film made in Coober Pedy, the globally famous "opal capital of the world" that's known for its underground dwellings beneath the blazing South Australian earth, is a bold decision, too. Sen strips away the colour to heighten the details — and also makes an emotionally and thematically loaded move. In every second, in every image that Limbo has flicker across the screen, there's no escaping the contrast that lingers plain as day as the audience watches on. There isn't meant to any reprieve, of course. As a stranger once more rides into town western-style within one of the auteur's movies, this is another rich, impassioned and affecting feature about the vast chasm between being Black and white in Australia, and it refuses to see hurt, pain and unspeakable loss with anything but the clearest of eyes.

Limbo's setting: the fictional locale that shares its name, unmistakably sports an otherworldly topography dotted by dugouts to avoid the baking heat and hasn't been able to overcome the murder of a local Indigenous girl two decades earlier. The title is symbolic several times over, including to the visiting Travis Hurley (Simon Baker, Blaze), whose first task upon arrival is checking into his subterranean hotel, rolling up his sleeves and indulging his heroin addiction. Later, he'll be told that he looks more like a drug dealer than a police officer — but, long before then, it's obvious that his line of work and the sorrows he surveys along the way have kept him hovering in a void. While he'll also unburden a few biographical details about mistakes made and regrets held before the film comes to an end, this tattooed cop with wings inked onto his back is already in limbo before he's literally in Limbo.

Travis has been dispatched to give Charlotte Hayes' vanishing a fresh examination; her brother Charlie (Rob Collins, The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson) is quick to say that exactly that should've happened 20 years prior. Back then, the investigation was brief, with fingers pointed swiftly and lazily at Limbo's First Nations men — sometimes even by each other simply to get the law off their own backs. "I don't talk to cops, especially white ones," is the initial response now. When Travis approaches Charlie's estranged sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen, The Survival of Kindness), she's equally unwelcoming. But as the detective's line of cold-case questioning also draws in Joseph (Nicolas Hope, Black Snow), the brother of the now-dead prime suspect from all that time back, Charlotte's siblings and the new badge in town have no choice but to keep crossing paths.

In the movie's deeply biting script, there's no doubting that Charlotte's case would've been handled differently from the outset if she was white — and that the racially motivated blame directed towards Charlie and Limbo's other Indigenous scapegoats has left irreparable scars. As in Mystery Road and Goldstone, Sen unpacks what such disdain for First Nations lives means in outback Australia; the fractures its causes in lives and locations; the impact upon generations that follow; and the way that this horrific state of affairs haunts at a personal, community and national level alike. Actually, perhaps it's more accurate to say that Limbo dwells with these ideas and truths, steeping in and sitting in purgatory beside them. There are some answers to be found in the film's narrative, but also no easy answers. Not just because Travis gets caught in Limbo longer than he expects or wants due to car troubles, there's no straightforward route out, either.

With his layered, pointed and soul-searing stories that make perceptive use of silence (and make every word of dialogue count), Sen is an exceptional screenwriter. That's true when he's returning to familiar parts but never merely retracing his own footsteps; Limbo is the cinema equivalent of stopping on another trail in the same desert to Mystery Road and Goldstone, rather than hitting the next town in line. The auteur is one of Australia's foremost talents at every skill he plies behind the camera, in fact — and his way with actors is among them. Under his gaze, Baker is in career-best form, which is no minor feat given the actor's extensive career, plus his impressive fellow recent homegrown turns in 2017's Breath, 2020's High Ground and 2022's Blaze. Beneath close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, there's such weariness and heaviness to his portrayal, all while playing a man whose investment in the case and connection with Charlie, Emma and the former's son Zac (expressive first-timer Mark Coe) manages to surprise himself.

Again shooting in Coober Pedy, as they both did for TV series Firebite, Collins and Wanganeen also give weighty performances that say so much even when they're uttering little, including about the yearning that everyone has to be seen, recognised and appreciated for who they are. Limbo's cast is contemplative in a film that's purposefully meditative — and for a filmmaker unwilling to shy away from the toll that racism constantly has, plus grief and Australia's inequitable justice system, as he ruminates. As a cinematographer, Sen's work is just as meticulous, motivated and moving. As an editor, he's exacting while knowing when to savour the moment. And Limbo is indeed a breathtaking feature to savour, staring intently as it does at harsh realities turned into a strikingly crafted and stunningly performed Aussie crime thriller.

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