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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
In biblical terms, Limbo is the place for unbaptised souls who must be kept waiting before they know their fate. In Ivan Sen’s new film, the whole cast seem to be drifting in time and space, both haunted by the past and not expecting much from the future.
The protagonist is down-at-heel detective Travis Hurley (an unshaven Simon Baker). He arrives in Coober Pedy, a weird town that has retreated underground, leaving the parched moonscape above littered with a few rusting cars and broken-down caravans. Sen’s decision to present the film in black and white (or possibly desaturated colour) adds to this unearthly glow.
Hurley is there to investigate the disappearance of a young Aboriginal girl, but this is a cold case from about 20 years ago, and he doesn’t hold out much hope of getting any closer to the truth than the inept cops that originally investigated it. The detective also has serious problems of his own, and so, in a funny kind of way, he can fit right in. Everyone he talks to (most of whom are blackfellas, who have good reason to distrust white cops), keep their own counsel. In fact, the dialogue wouldn’t extend to more than a few pages. Still, there is plenty of meaning conveyed in a typically oblique way.
Sen is a distinctive and accomplished filmmaker. Yes, it has a troubled cop who is often one step behind, and who uncovers ever more murky truths, but the filmmaker isn’t interested in genre conventions. His focus, as it has been for many films (Mystery Road, Goldstone), is on black and white relations and on how white Australia consistently misses the point about such things. There are moments of grace, and even actions that Hurley does which may have good outcomes, but no one is pretending that this is some great road to salvation. It is a film that requires as much patience as the lead character shows. It is distinctive and always visually stylish but it is a slow and deliberately unflashy viewing experience. Sen is a purist, and with Limbo, he has been allowed to have the courage of his artistic convictions.