Limbo Review – Ivan Sen Crafts a Stunning Symbolic Neo-Noir in the Otherworldly Limbo

Ivan Sen is a master of the Australian neo-noir. With both Mystery Road and Goldstone audiences were introduced to Aboriginal Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) a man whose position as a member of the police force put him at odds with his own community as well as the inherently racist white Australians that surrounded him. In Limbo, Sen returns to the outback detective, but this time he is Travis Hayes (Simon Baker), a white man driving into a town that is carries its scars in a literal and figurative manner. Will the broken down, drug addicted detective be able to help solve a twenty-year-old cold case about a missing Indigenous girl without opening wounds that never healed? Wounds that are on the surface of the town Limbo (in all ways, Coober Pedy), and barely buried beneath his own defeated persona.

As much as Limbo is an outback noir it also borrows heavily from the Western. Travis drives into town listening to a preacher speak about dreams, redemption, and getting closer to God. Travis is a long way from God and redemption and when he checks into the Limbo Hotel, an underground dwelling, the first thing he does is reach for his needle and spoon. Travis isn’t close to anyone nor anything. He is buried under a deep weight and Sen places him underground in a space that echoes his own isolation.

Charlotte Hayes was a teenager who disappeared and because of the inherent racism of the town, her case was only vaguely investigated. The police first assumed that she had simply gone “walkabout” they then turned the blame onto Charlotte’s mother, and when they were forced to take it somewhat seriously they decided they would pin it on a young aboriginal man, it didn’t much matter which one, and eventually focused on her brother, Charlie (Rob Collins) leaving too much time for the probable suspect, Leon Cuttmore to remove any evidence of the crime and rendering the case unsolvable.

Why is Travis in Limbo? Why is there interest in doing a review to reopen the case? Sen leaves these questions open because he’s using Charlotte’s disappearance as a broader metaphor. At first Travis has little luck speaking to anyone. Charlie lives alone in a caravan, a wrecked man trying to scrape together what little he can from the scraps of white miners who left the town pockmarked and broken. He doesn’t want to speak to white coppers, and it becomes abundantly clear why. His sister, Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) isn’t much more welcoming, but she sees that perhaps there is a chance that Travis will help her find some stability and perhaps help mend the shattered family dynamic between herself and Charlie, and Charlie’s two children who she cares for.

The procedural moves at a glacial pace. Each lead ends nowhere. Leon is apparently dead, at least according to his brother Joseph (Nicholas Hope). He died of dementia on the edge of town in a mine that is almost exhausted. Sen moves our gaze to a makeshift grave which may, or may not, be empty. No one knows, no one cares. Certainly no one wants to remember the parties that Leon held where he would offer young Indigenous people drugs and alcohol because he “had a thing for young black girls.”

If limbo as a religious concept is akin to purgatory then everything in the town, including the people who are mostly faceless, are living on the edge of hell. The vastness of the landscape is rendered otherworldly by Sen’s faded black and white cinematography. Limbo is at the end of the world, a liminal space which is defined by its cavernous underground mines that have been converted into living spaces and places of worship, as well as the mounds of dug up earth that reminds the viewer that the land was taken and exploited for opal mining. Coober Pedy, ‘Kupa Piti’ in the Indigenous Arabana language means “White man in a hole” and it is a place of displacement. The Indigenous people of the area have been forced to mostly live on the fringes of the town eking out a living by searching through what was taken from their land – the luminous opal.

Exhaustion and resignation flow through the landscape into the people. For Travis he has no wish to remain in Limbo and yet he is through circumstance stuck there. What he finds in his investigation is secondary to what he finds in himself and the Hayes family. When people finally do talk to him, he begins to open up to his own grief and isolation. A kind of friendship forms with Charlie and Emma, and he realises that although he may never be able to give them closure over Charlotte’s disappearance, he might be able to facilitate the first steps of familial healing.

Sen’s film speaks to the continued gulf between white and Indigenous communities and the lack of care white Australia shows to the first nations people whose land they colonised, whose languages they destroyed, whose spirituality and art they commodified. There is an inherent sadness to Limbo but also a small glimmer of hope. A never-better Simon Baker inhabits Travis with a reluctance and reticence that gradually morphs into the ability to hold out a hand and take one. The guilty are not punished but the innocent are given a chance to reconcile.

Sen is not simply the writer and director of his films, he is also the cinematographer, editor, and composer. The world that Ivan Sen creates is wholly his own vision. Moving from his futuristic neon-soaked neo noir Loveland (also known as Expired) to the monochromatic world of Limbo shows that he is adept at crafting mood pieces that speak their intentions about the human condition and how environments shape their inhabitants. In Limbo we don’t know much about Travis, but we do learn a lot about how the desert has trapped generations in a cycle of dislocation and otherness on their own land. Limbo is far from a white saviour film; Travis isn’t going to fix the ongoing community issues and he doesn’t really want to. He simply allows himself to truly look at the people who have been harmed.

Limbo is at times indescribably beautiful; Sen’s cinematography has never been better. It is also stark and uncomfortable. A land littered by industrial machinery that has been abandoned is also a land that through industry abandoned those who belonged to it. Charlotte’s art opens the film as it fades into the rocky ground – it isn’t empty symbolism. The art that she created that represented her family and their connection is sacred and not for the white man to understand. Charlotte is the ghost that hangs over the Hayes family but like the ancestors whose spirits guide the living the imprint she left behind is what eventually allows the family to move forward and perhaps find healing.

Director: Ivan Sen

Cast: Simon Baker, Natasha Wanganeen, Rob Collins

Writer: Ivan Sen

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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