Credit: Film Forum/Music Box Films
by Grace Boschetti Featured Film Horizon Line

Limbo — Ivan Sen

March 21, 2024

Part of a generation of First Nations filmmakers that also includes Rachel Perkins (Radiance, Bran Nue Dae), Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country, The New Boy) and Wayne Blaire (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding), Gamilaroi filmmaker Ivan Sen has, for over two decades, been an important figure in Australian cinema. Since his feature directorial debut, the lovely coming-of-age road movie Beneath Clouds (2002), Sen has directed six films, spanning several genres. The neorealist Toomelah (2011) centers on a troubled 10-year-old boy living in the Aboriginal community and former mission where Sen’s mother grew up. The Western-influenced outback crime procedural Mystery Road (2013) has spawned both a 2016 sequel (Goldstone) and a spin-off television series. And more recently, the filmmaker ventured into science fiction with the Hong Kong-set Loveland (2022).

Perhaps most aptly characterized as a neo-noir, Sen’s latest film, Limbo, releasing in U.S. theatres more than a year after its initial premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, is a stylized, monochromatic mood piece. The film makes particularly effective use of the striking and distinctive landscape of Coober Pedy, South Australia. As an example of contemporary Australian cinema, it is, at the very least, markedly more interesting than Robert Connolly’s Force of Nature: The Dry 2, which is also set for an imminent U.S. release. While both films are operating in the realm of the mystery-thriller, this critic’s re-watch of Sen’s film in the wake of having viewed the latter Eric Bana vehicle expounds its first-rate qualities.

In addition to writing, directing, and producing Limbo, Sen also served as the editor, composer, and cinematographer. His approach to photographing vast outback landscapes has always been singular, but Limbo is surely his most technically accomplished work. The film follows withdrawn detective Travis Hurley (Simon Baker), who has been sent to review the case of Charlotte Hayes, a young Indigenous girl whose disappearance has remained unsolved for 20 years. Travis, who injects himself with heroin within minutes of arriving at the underground Limbo motel, makes no secret of the fact he would rather be elsewhere. With Charlotte’s siblings Charlie (Rob Collins) and Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) initially wary to discuss the case, and the major suspect having apparently since died — leaving only the eerie Joseph (Bad Boy Bubby star Nicholas Hope) available for questioning — it seems the investigation is going nowhere. Yet circumstances ensure that Travis remains stuck in place. 

Baker, sporting a buzzcut and numerous shoddily designed tattoos, gives a committed against-type performance. His Travis is tormented — estranged from his ex-wife and son, too weak and weary to offer even the faint hope that the still grieving community may find any closure. “You gonna find out what happened to Charlotte?” local Oscar (an excellent Joshua Warrior) asks, having just shared his horrific experience of being brutalized by police during the initial investigation. “Nah. That’s not my job, mate,” Travis responds. 

Institutional racism in Australia’s justice system, including police negligence toward Indigenous women and children who are victims of violent crime, has been a major focus in several of Sen’s films. A moment in Limbo, wherein Charlie explains that police didn’t even begin to investigate Charlotte’s case until two weeks after her disappearance, echoes Mystery Road’s opening sequence, in which detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) arrives at the scene where the body of a murdered teenage Aboriginal girl has been recovered, only to find the area has not been taped off. It’s a painful truth which must be confronted. Sen’s films generally end on a note of quiet optimism — a hope for a better, more just, future. While Limbo’s final moments stop short of offering any kind of definitive explanation, there is at least some relief to be found: an end to a perpetual state of purgatory.

DIRECTOR: Ivan Sen;  CAST: Simon Baker, Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen, Nicholas Hope;  DISTRIBUTOR: Brainstorm Media / Music Box Films;  IN THEATERS: March 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.