‘Limbo’ Review: Simon Baker Is Superb as a Jaded Detective in Ivan Sen’s Visually Striking Outback Procedural
Ivan Sen’s transfixing detective story takes its title from a remote, fictional opal mining town in the South Australian desert, surrounded by a ravaged landscape of craters and dirt mounds that evokes some barren, faraway planet in the stunning drone shots that punctate the film. The bone-dry, pockmarked earth, where many locals live in underground dugouts to escape the extreme heat and dust clouds, provides a bracingly atmospheric setting for this distinctive cold-case procedural. Led by an almost unrecognizable Simon Baker as a jaded cop, Limbo weaves in themes of racial inequity, broken individuals and fractured families to build quiet potency.
Indigenous Australian filmmaker Sen used the genre tropes of the Western to reflect on Aboriginal identity and the uneasy relationship of First Nations people to the country’s justice system in Mystery Road and Goldstone. In Limbo, he veers closer to noir in a film that has similarities to Robert Connolly’s 2020 crime mystery The Dry while very much conjuring its own unsettling mood.
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Sen is a virtual one-man band, handling cinematography, music and editing duties in addition to writer-director-producer. His choice to shoot here (on locations in and around Cooper Pedy, in northern S.A.) in widescreen black and white yields knockout results, showcasing an impeccable eye for composition. He continually positions the characters in arresting mid- or long-shots that emphasize their tiny place in a vast, inhospitable environment with neither comforts nor escape.
Baker plays detective Travis Hurley, who rolls into town on assignment to review the unsolved case of Charlotte Hayes, a young Indigenous woman who went missing 20 years earlier. Travis picked up a heroin habit during his time on the drug squad; he freely admits he doesn’t much like anyone, and no one likes him. But his investigative manner is less hardboiled than sadly world-weary, registering no reaction when the victim’s brother Charlie (Rob Collins) tells him, “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.”
Holed up in the Limbo Motel, in a room that’s like an underground grotto carved out of sandstone, Travis listens to tapes from the coercive original questioning of suspects and attempts to talk to anyone who might be able to shed new light on an unexplained loss that still festers. But the “fresh eyes” Travis aims to bring are something Charlie says they could have used 20 years ago, when cops took two weeks even to begin the investigation, and then came after all the Black men in town.
The acknowledgement that the case would have received far more attention had it been a white girl’s disappearance fits with the frequent interest in Sen’s work in the ways the Australian justice system has failed Aboriginal families. That theme feeds underlying notes in Limbo of both tension and sorrow.
Both Charlie and his estranged sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen), who works at the local café, get over their initial reluctance to talk, exposing a legacy of trauma and wounds that run deep in the family. Travis also questions witnesses who admit they lied to get cops off their backs after being roughed up during the interrogation. He keeps coming back to the brother of a since-deceased key suspect, Joseph (Nicolas Hope), a reclusive eccentric living in an abandoned mine, who appears to know more than he lets on.
Sen’s script includes enough indications of what actually happened to Charlotte to give the mystery aspect a satisfying payoff, even if it might be a touch too muted for genre fans accustomed to more muscular final acts. The director ultimately is more interested in the ways in which damaged people are drawn together.
Travis at first just wants to be done with the case review and get back to his home base as quickly as possible. But car issues force him to linger in town, forging ties with Charlie, and especially Emma, almost despite himself.
Without ever slipping into white-savior territory or opting for too-tidy concluding notes, Travis’ actions illustrate a maxim heard on the evangelical broadcasts constantly playing on his car radio: “Every single negative can lead to a positive.” The pain of the Hayes family, and the ripple effect on the larger community, penetrates his numbness, coaxing out a forgotten residue of humanity.
Baker, looking weathered and more like an ex-con than a cop, with his close-cropped hair and extensive body ink, conveys the regrets of a man whose own family life disintegrated, as well as moments of tenderness that seem to take him by surprise.
This is especially true in some lovely, understated scenes with Emma, whose solitude is palpable in Wanganeen’s performance, showing a lonely woman slowly letting down her guard. Collins is similarly strong — Charlie’s hurt over the loss of his sister and his anger at being tainted with blame make him still raw and volatile two decades later. Sen’s direction of the three kids carrying that trauma into the next generation is exemplary.
With the orange neon Limbo Motel sign standing in stark relief against the desert nights, the setting is a desolate purgatorial place that could be the gates of Hell, stripped not only of the gemstones that gave birth to the settlement, but also of hope. However, Sen is a humanistic filmmaker who believes in personal redemption, an element conveyed with pleasing restraint, without forcing the somber story into someplace artificially consoling.
The measured pacing allows Sen’s clear-eyed character observation time to breathe, and the absence of music, aside from the end credits, makes way for the sounds of wind continually whipping up dust, and the dingoes howling in the distance. “They’re getting closer,” says Joseph at one point, with more inevitability than dread. With its strikingly cinematic locations and Sen’s expressive use of the widescreen frame, Limbo also sneaks up on you, leaving a haunting impression.