‘Limbo’ Review: Simon Baker Becomes a Noir Detective in the Australian Outback | Berlinale 2023
Ivan Sen’s gorgeous cinematography and a well-intentioned exploration of Australian racism can’t redeem the crime of a dull script.
The first thing you’ll notice about Limbo is how filmmaker Ivan Sen uses black and white to create a unique version of the Australian outback that’s almost hypnotic. Once your eyes adjust to the beauty of these visuals, the second thing you might notice is how Simon Baker (The Mentalist) is unrecognizable as Travis Hurley, a police officer investigating a cold case that reveals much about racial conflicts in Australia. Unfortunately, as much as these two elements keep drawing us back into Limbo, they can’t redeem the crime of a dull script.
Drawing from the tradition of noir detective stories, the film follows Baker as he plays a gritty police officer haunted by personal demons, and who unwittingly gets involved in a case that’ll force him to confront his past. Travis is sent to the small mining community of Limbo, in the Australian outback, to review a 20-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of an Aboriginal girl. He is only there to fill up reports and tell his superiors if there’s new evidence that’d make it worth reopening the case. However, as he gets closer to the family members of the vanished girl, the case becomes more personal to Travis as he’s forced to confront the injustices of a system he gladly ignores when it suits his desires.
As the movie goes by, and Travis starts to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle, we realize police officers ignored the crime for as long as they could before using illegal interrogation methods to blame any Aboriginal man they could find. When this brutal strategy didn’t work out, the case ended up being shelved, with the lost girl’s family shattered and without the proper support. By exploring the structural racism of Australian police, Sen wants to underline how the scars of colonialism are still visible in the outback where the Aboriginal people struggle to stay alive while being repressed by racist police officers. It’s a commendable cinematic effort, but Limbo falls short when it comes to actually telling an engaging story.
Sen is wearing his references on his sleeves as it follows the playbook of noir murder mysteries with a tough detective who doesn’t play by the rules, but still has a keen sense of justice. The dialogue is rough and filled with one-liners, the movie uses old recorded tapes as a tool for exposition, and there are long shots of Travis smoking while staring at the horizon with an empty gaze. Sen is clearly drinking from the film noir tradition of the 40s and 50s, and while we can admire his commitment to the style, there’s not much else going on in Limbo.
While we can understand the choice to use the city of Limbo as a background for a story where people are trapped with the tumultuous past and their sins, the film constantly challenges the audience’s attention span. While that’s a storytelling problem in general, it’s even more relevant in a genre that sets the expectations for a thrilling journey where new clues and shady witnesses make the mystery twist and turn in unexpected directions. Instead, Limbo underlines the immutability of the world as there’s little character growth to be achieved and only unsatisfying conclusions to Travis’ investigation. Yes, I get that this is precisely the idea of Limbo, a movie that also deals with the pessimistic perception that not much has changed regarding racism and police abuse. Still, as much as one can respect Sen’s creative choices, they don’t make it any more engaging.
Limbo is unquestionably gorgeous. Using black and white cinematography, Sen turns the Australian desert into a mysterious landscape that extends beyond the horizon, underlining the theme of permanence in Limbo. It’s also fascinating how the movie uses a mining town as a background, with caves turning into homes and hotels, simultaneously mundane and otherworldly. Add layered performances to the mix, and Limbo seems to have all the elements to be a success. It’s then unfortunate that the movie drags on for longer than it should.
Some might say that’s precisely the goal of Limbo, as the movie traps the audience in this vast and repetitive setting. That’s not a wrong way to approach the film, and if viewers manage to sync with this specific wavelength, they will definitely enjoy Sen’s methodical noir deconstruction. Still, it might be asking too much from the audience, especially where there’s so little payoff to be found in this corner of the Australian outback.
Limbo had its world premiere at 2023’s Berlin Film Festival.