Released 2023. Director: Ivan Sen
IN HIS LATEST MOVIE, THE EVER TIRELESS Ivan Sen (director, writer, producer, composer, editor, cinematographer) once again takes us into Australia’s sun-baked backyard. The wide open spaces in the outback has always been Sen’s canvass where he examines the dark corners of the human soul in an intersection between Aboriginal and white Australia.
The last time, he took us to a remote mining community where a jaded detective digs into a case of a missing girl, in Goldstone (2016). Similarly, in Limbo, a different jaded detective arrives in a mining town on a 20-year-old cold case of a missing girl named Charlotte.
Detective Travis Hurley from the city is played by Simon Baker. The actor sheds his debonair golden-boy looks and sports a close-cropped, unshaven austerity that resembles Walter White, the iconic character played by Bryan Cranston in TV’s Breaking Bad. The lawman is taciturn, observant and intuitive, as well as a heroin addict. When he’s driving, Travis listens to Christian sermons on the radio though he’s painted as a flawed figure in no position to dispense righteous justice.
Travis checks in on the people connected to the case, including Charlotte’s brother Charlie, a loner living in a campervan, and sister Emma, a waitress living on meagre means with three young kids to feed, one of them Charlie’s daughter. Travis also tracks down witnesses and the brother of a prime suspect who has since died.
The trauma of Charlotte’s disappearance and presumed death still has a strong lingering effect on them all. As the detective picks apart the detail and needles long-shelved memories, not everyone feels the need to speak, unburden or atone.
Sen makes fine use of the location to suggest the status of Travis as the outsider. The aerial shots of the expanse of conical mounds in the desert evoke an alien landscape. In this strange world where he doesn’t belong, a stranger has landed, expecting to turn over every stone, rouse the past and stir latent emotions.
As the movie progresses it becomes clear that Sen is less concerned with the procedural detail of the investigation and more with the effect it has on the people involved. The character of Travis, as it transpires, goes beyond being a detective. As he unravels the case, he’s also become an intermediary in helping to bring healing and closure. The thing is, the movie is so passive and the storytelling lacking in energy that in the end, Limbo doesn’t quite reach the complexity and nuance that it strives for.
Sen clearly aims for a muted approach in tone and visuals but the movie is self-conscious in straining to appear subdued. Setting a story at an opal mining town and yet stripping the luminescence of the gemstone completely from the movie is a baffling creative decision. Is the black-and-white cinematography meant to suggest the characters’ inability or refusal to see the obvious?
Calling the town Limbo (as opposed to Coober Pedy) is an unsubtle reflection on the state of the characters enervated by heat, lethargy and years of guilt, anger and sadness. Sen's commentary on the mistreatment and disenfranchisement experienced by Indigenous Australians comes across mellow and incomplete. Like the title, the movie floats in wait in a static place, instead of venturing deeper into the personal and cultural loss in a long buried, afflicted past.
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