Berlin 2023

Limbo review – snail-like outback noir lingers long in the mind

Simon Baker is excellent – and unrecognisable – as a cop assigned to a cold case in director Ivan Sen's stark study of racial trauma

There is an undeniable patience-testing quality to this rewarding, though snail-like procedural from Indigenous Australian writer-director Ivan Sen, which may as well be set on the Moon. With its vast craters and sandy dunes, captured here in crisp monochrome, the remote mining town of Umoona resembles some distant planet. That's no coincidence: Limbo is named for the barren landscape, yes, but also the position of its characters – Indigenous people pushed to the fringes, whose lives have been punctuated by an endless ellipsis not just on the basis of this film's singular, unsolved tragedy, but a more insidious and widespread discrimination.

Simon Baker, unrecognisable, tattooed, and looking like Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, plays Travis Hurley, a burned-out “copper” assigned to a seemingly dead-end case involving the twenty-year-old disappearance of an Indigenous woman named Charlotte Hayes. No body was ever recovered, but we quickly discover that the police mishandled the initial investigation in an attempt to beat a confession out of basically any Indigenous person, breaking all forms of trust between the authorities and the community.

Travis is a hands-on-hips type, dressed in tight jeans, currently in a period of his own perpetual limbo-ness; a former drugs squad member turned heroin addict who listens to Evangelical sermons in his car, he is resigned from all things personal but relies on his work as a reason to wake up in the morning. As character traits these sound gimmick-y, but in practice, Baker – worn-down rather than bitter, jaded but distinctly human – makes it all feel like the authentic fallout of a damaged life. It's a career-best turn for the actor, playing in a completely different register than we're used to, but always striking the right notes of restraint, especially in scenes shared with Charlotte's sister, Emma (an excellent Natasha Wanganeen), her trauma igniting a sense of responsibility – and personal catharsis – as he lingers in town.

Limbo mostly unravels as a series of quiet conversations; unhurried and like roadblocks, in which all parties speak flatly and plainly in what feels like an intentionally stilted cadence, aware that nothing will come of any of this, but – one-by-one – submitting to tiny feelings of hope that maybe, just maybe, it will. The set-up gathers in western tropes – Travis may as well be on horseback as he drives between various dusty locales – as to later expose the myths of such genre filmmaking. And while Sen's film also takes on the flavour of noir, it never quite leans into full-out cynicism, its focus on the act of reconciliation – even in the most minuscule of ways – imbuing the picture with a compassion without ever softening its exploration of institutional racism.

Limbo will certainly prove too slow for some; by design it seems to revel in how little incident there is. A gun is fired – but only at a tin can (and it misses, in what feels like a purposely unsubtle metaphor). There is no real sense of resolution, either, though it's frustrating as to be realistic, rather than to irritate the viewer. Yet to give up waiting for some huge dramatic reveal is to also allow one's self to fall under Limbo's hypnotic spell. There is something quietly revelatory in the stillness of the filmmaking, the careful compositions, the refreshingly minimalist, blinding white aesthetic witnessed without even a note of music to guide the tone. What did we expect? The music stopped playing here twenty years ago.

Limbo was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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