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Limbo 2023 Movie Review
Indigenous Australian film-maker Ivan Sen brings to Berlin a terrific outback noir, a cold-case crime procedural that he has written and directed – and also shot in a stark monochrome, which makes the vast skies and cratered earth of South Australia’s abandoned opal mines look like another planet.
The setting is the town of Umoona, where a grizzled cop arrives, broodingly listening to a Christian talkshow on the car radio, and checking into a place unsubtly called the Limbo Motel, where his room is a bizarre stone grotto, apparently repurposed from one of the disused mines. This is detective Travis Hurley, played in careworn, weatherbeaten style by Simon Baker – very much resembling Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. Hurley is a former drug squad officer who has become addicted to heroin; his superiors have quite clearly given him this hopeless job in the middle of nowhere as a means of getting him out of the way. His ostensible task is to reopen a 20-year-old case: the unsolved disappearance of an Indigenous woman. This was casually and incompetently investigated by white officers at the time, who were concerned only in getting a confession from (any) Indigenous man.
Nobody in authority, then or now, has the smallest interest in solving this case, but Hurley takes it seriously. He talks to the missing woman’s brother Charlie and sister Emma (very good performances from Rob Collins and Natasha Wanganeen), and tracks down Joseph (Nicholas Hope), a “whitefella” who had some involvement in dubious parties to which Indigenous men and women in those days were invited. Sen and Baker show how something in Hurley’s own terrible loneliness, emotionally ruined state and fractured family background resonates with the people he talks to. He starts making progress, finding an emotional connection with his witnesses and even the first glimmerings of redemption for himself. But healing his wounds could mean reopening theirs.
Sen coolly lays out for us the reality of the racism and casual discrimination to which the Indigenous population are subjected to – especially, but not solely, when it is police business. Their stoicism is revealed when the people Hurley approaches perhaps figure that, since nothing is going to get done, there is nothing obvious to lose and perhaps some therapeutic closure to be gained in talking to this wrecked-looking cop. And Sen also shows us a mysterious Indigenous painting: images from the fathomless millennia of Dreamtime. It is a tough, muscular film with the grit of crime, but a heartbeat of compassion.