Review: An investigator on a cold case finds isolation in an outback town called 'Limbo'

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Outback noir gets an Antonioni-esque existential once-over in writer-director Ivan Sen’s aridly brooding mystery “Limbo,” a tale of the missing and what’s ever-present in a place of stark beauty and deep-seated racial injustice. Come for the cold case, stay for a couple of remarkably lived-in performances from Simon Baker and Natasha Wanganeen. But understand that the true spell here is multihyphenate Sen’s monochrome cinematography, capturing a desolate South Australian town as if it were a moonscape, light-years from the comforts of Earth.

Sen’s brand of socially conscious, dusty, “Bad Day at Black Rock”-adjacent crime saga has already delivered sturdy returns with his earlier features, “Mystery Road” and “Goldstone,” each of which starred Aaron Pedersen as an Indigenous detective poking around rural communities thick with corruption and secrets. (Sen himself is of Indigenous and European descent.) “Limbo” also is built around a man looking for answers, in this case about the 20-year-old disappearance of an Indigenous schoolgirl in the titular town, a remote, depressed opal mining outpost. This time, however, our visiting, taciturn investigator is white, although no less affected by a hard land’s lingering hurts.

Travis (an unrecognizably weathered Baker) has rolled into Limbo and its patchwork of waste soil mounds, open caves and sparse businesses to see if the girl’s likely murder, never officially solved, is worth reopening. That this stoic, tight-lipped man listens to Christian sermons on the radio, but quickly shoots up once he checks into his motel room, tells us that there are other demons on his mind besides the ones he may be unearthing.

What he finds initially is a reluctance to participate on the part of the missing Charlotte’s surviving kin. Her stepbrother Charlie (Rob Collins) lives alone in a trailer, usually morose and often drunk, and still bristles at the racially targeted harassment he received from the white cops who barely investigated at the time. Charlotte's older sister Emma (Wanganeen) is estranged from Charlie but is raising his two kids, as well as her own daughter. They live on her meager waitress wages, and whatever they fetch from scrounging for opals from the countless rock piles.

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Even Travis’ search for the man whom everyone accepted as the prime suspect — a skeevy white local once notorious for plying the area’s teenage girls with alcohol and drugs — seems futile: Travis learns from the guy’s reclusive brother (Nicholas Hope) that he’d died the year before. New information bubbles to the surface as Travis tracks down leads, but it’s as if traveling to the middle of nowhere to unravel one crime revealed a wasteland of dislocation and pain, the result of years of wrongdoing. Even a deepening bond with Emma — one that elicits details of his scarred past, and playful teasing from her kids — is approached cautiously, with Baker and Wanganeen serving up a master class in synched underplaying. This extracted land may be full of holes but also, we sense, emotional mines.

“Limbo,” which Sen also scored and edited, is ostensibly a murder mystery, complete with clues and, though obliquely rendered, a solution both stinging and believable. The narrative invariably feels like merely a framework for Sen’s carefully cultivated black-and-white mood, immersing us in a parched, faded world of loss, anger and hiding. With only a handful of characters populating this spare tale — led by Baker’s compassionate cowboy melancholia and Wanganeen’s hardened loneliness — “Limbo” is as much last-chance western as it is crime story.

There’s no truer visual metaphor for this than Sen’s canny choice of town to play his fictional Limbo: real-life Aussie settlement Coober Pedy, where most homes and businesses are subterranean, built right into the region’s sandstone, as if cave times had returned. It’s clearly a heat-avoiding measure. But for a noir of isolation and concealment, about how the past can often feel inescapable, these shadowy dugouts — Travis’ motel, a church and one character’s lonely lair — are an atmospheric mother lode.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.