First Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen has carved out a niche making neo-noir crime dramas about lonely men in lonely places, investigating lonely crimes. His latest, Limbo, is true to his thematic motif, centered on a lone detective sent to a remote Outback town, the titular Limbo, to investigate the cold-case murder of a First Australian girl twenty years before. However, where his previous films Mystery Road and Goldstone were centered on a First Australian detective (Jay Swan, played by Aaron Pedersen), Limbo is about a white detective stepping onto Indigenous land and a crime culminating from generations of disenfranchisement. 


Simon Baker, best known internationally for the procedural drama The Mentalist, gives one of his best performances as Travis Hurley, a burnt-out cop reviewing a cold case in the bleak, strange town of Limbo in South Australia. (Baker took his Mentalist money back to Australia and has been supporting his local film industry and working with Indigenous filmmakers ever since. Kind of neat.) Travis is in the throes of a drug addiction and facing hostility from all corners, both environmentally—he is stranded when the heat fries his car’s engine—and from the locals who are, even twenty years later, still reeling from the disappearance of Charlotte, a First Australian girl who vanished after a party one night. 

Sen, who also wrote the screenplay and acts as his own cinematographer, editor, and composer, crafts his bleakest and most layered drama yet. Filming in the real town of Coober Pedy, the “opal capital of the world”, he shoots his film in rich black and white and utilizes many wide-frame shots, highlighting the lunar-like landscape of the mine-pocked town. The landscape is strange and harsh, alien and alienating, yet Sen’s cinematography is luscious, shadows curving over hills and the lines in Baker’s face with velvety depth, details revealed in stark chiaroscuro. His moody, drifting score underpins the drama with a sense of melancholy—no thumping thriller urgency, but instead a lament for losses that will never be healed.


Charlotte’s siblings, Charlie (Rob Collins) and Emma (Natasha Wanganeen), are still struggling to cope with her loss, and Joseph (Nicholas Hope), brother of one of the prime suspects, is riddled with remorse. Limbo does an excellent job showing how the loss of a loved one, especially when there is no closure, let alone justice, haunts people and generations. Emma is raising three kids, her daughter and her niece and nephew. The kids understand their aunt disappeared and feel her absence even if they never knew her, in how she haunts the adults in their family. 

Limbo is at once a solid detective yarn, and an exploration of generational injustice against the First Australians. Charlotte’s disappearance was initially chalked up to her “going walkabout”—a familiar lackadaisical approach by white law enforcement in many MMIW cases—and then the local cops focused on her brother as a suspect before finally moving onto a white man. The case was never solved, though, and by the time Travis arrives in town, many people associated with it are dead, and any evidence is long destroyed. Still, he plods along, uncovering a sinister pattern of abuse perpetrated against the First Australian girls in town.


It's a tough film about a tough subject, centered on equally tough characters. But Limbo is extraordinarily sensitive, the characters’ vulnerability foregrounded against the haunting specter of violence. Baker, Collins, and Wanganeen are all fantastic, and the kid actors are so believable as hardened youths it’s kind of depressing. The black and white cinematography makes it feel sort of otherworldly and strange, yet at heart Limbo is a distressingly common tale of judicial indifference and systemic marginalization. Travis may solve the crime, but he can’t fix the injustices already done, to Charlotte or any First Australian community. 

It’s not his place to fix it, either, but still, Limbo makes room for compassion, empathy, and connection. It’s as if the systemic failures are so huge, all that’s left is for individuals to do what they can for each other in the face of institutional indifference. Limbo isn’t exactly hopeful, but it, like the characters who keep putting one foot in front of the other despite staggering suffering, doesn’t quite give up on the idea of small, human effort being rewarded with a tiny bit of relief. 


Limbo isn’t offering a happy ending, for Travis, Charlie, Emma, or anyone, but it does offer a haunting portrait of empathy in action, even if just in small doses. 

This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Limbois currently available on ABC TV in Australia but is not yet released internationally.