TIFF 2023 | Limbo (Ivan Sen, Australia) — Centrepiece

By Josh Lewis

Since beginning his feature directorial career in 2002 with Beneath Clouds, Australian writer-director Ivan Sen has carved out a space for himself as one of his country’s prominent post-colonial filmmakers, taking familiar plot strands from coming-of-age, crime and road movies and giving them a meditative atmosphere concerned with the specific identity crisis at the intersection of the historical racist abuse and barren landscapes of the Outback. His latest film Limbo—following in the trend of moving these considerations into hard-boiled neo-western/noir contexts that began in 2013’s Mystery Road and 2016’s Goldstone—traces the cold murder investigation of an indigenous girl named Charlotte being given “fresh eyes” 20-years too late by the guilt-ridden, drug-addicted former Vice Copper Travis Hurley (Simon Baker, aging into harder facial features since his breakout role in L.A. Confidential) who instead becomes witness to the casual cycle of suffering, institutional indifference, and the festering wounds left in the wake of the small desert community.

The procedural mystery at the center of Limbo doesn’t contain many surprises as Hurley navigates various aging, forgetful and conflicting witnesses/suspects, tapes of racially motivated interrogations, and understandably suspicious family members of the girl performed sensitively by Natasha Wanganeen and Rob Collins but whose characterizations on the page can occasionally come off more generic than artfully spare—a quality it shares with the antiquated, macho sentimentality of Taylor Sheridan. However, photographed in crisp black-and-white scope by Sen himself (who serves as editor and composer on the film as well), Limbo’s primary interest is more in its mundane, purgatorial mood and harsh, dusty, “edge-of-hell” topography that has a cheap, haunting beauty to it resembling the cavernous locales of S. Craig Zahler if not the brutal, cleansing violence. And though its resigned, “fair enough” attitude might not be traditionally satisfying for some, Sen’s most admirable instinct is that Limbo moves at a controlled, glacial pace and concludes not on revelations or shootouts but on notes of irresolution and disappointment. The white man comes to town, digs around a bit and leaves nothing but holes on his way out.