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 Post subject: Ivan Sen: Limbo (2023)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 20, 2024 3:52 pm 
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Cold case in the Outback

Justly celebrated as atmosphere and social commentary, Limbo is a police procedural "outback noir" from indigenous Australian director Ivan Sen that is beautiful to watch, but avoids genre expectations and provides no simple payoff. One may compare the French director Dominik Moll's more easily engaging recent César-winner, The Night of the 12th, an elaborate contemporary investigation of the murder of a young woman - which never finds a perpetrator. But Limbo is a cold case. Moll's film, about a hot new murder, is colorful and fun; this one isn't meant to be. It stays cold. No turbulent flashbacks. Lots of grumpiness. There is nonetheless plenty to entice you in the lead-up to final fizzle in this virtuoso effort by Sen, who simultaneously fills here the roles of director, writer, cameraman, editor, and composer.

As the protagonist, investigator Travis Hurley, actor Simon Baker appears in a fascinating new light as a kind of distressed object, a burnt-out cop whose involvement in narcotics investigations led to his own heroin addiction, which we see early on still isn't over. You may remember in his Hollywood salad days of L.A. Confidential Simon Baker was a beautiful man. Gnarly and wrinkled but trim now as Hurley, he's covered with tattoos. His bespectacled face is a cold, jaded stare into space. Hurley has been sent, or perhaps more like temporarily shelved, to the outback to investigate the unsolved case of an aboriginal young woman called Charlotte Hayes who disappeared twenty years ago. The location is a region of burnt-out opal mines, a bumpy, lunar desert.

Hurley checks into a motel called Limbo at the site of a former mine, where his room is a luminous cave with curved and hovering ceiling. The wide screen images are so bleached out at first you may not notice they're black and white - but the cinematography often sings. There will be drone overhead shots and night scenes of velvety blacks where bright lights sparkle like diamonds, distractingly gorgeous and highlighting their expansiveness. Nowhere, it seems, can be eye candy. But this is still nowhere: that's the point. Director Sem is making it somewhere for us but only bit by bit.

Hurley is a "white fella." The relatives of the lost girl and possible witnesses he interviews are mostly "black fellas." A seeming outcast, but still a representative of the national police force, Hurley is there to listen, though at first nobody wants to talk. He's here now to give the case a closer look? Twenty years ago was when they should have done that, an angry local snarls. There is personal decline now - death, dementia - and resentment and sheer forgetfulness in the way of reviving the evidence.

Hurley mightn't have bothered very long with this assignment, but local hoodlums plunder and ravage his car, and parts have to be ordered to get it going again so he's stuck for a while. He rents out a Seventies Dodge as a loaner and tools around in it revisiting contacts and developing more. The vintage car is more suitable to the artful look of the piece than his white contemporary blob. It's a beautiful oblong rectilinear black sculpture; Guy Lodge in his Variety review suggests also it also "sets him to the whole town’s rhythm of slowed decay." It may also suit better Baker's role as the lead in a sort of downbeat outback Western with his straight jeans and shiny belt buckle.

What happened back then after Charlotte disappeared Hurley finds out was that the "white fella" cops rounded up all the young males in the village as suspects and interrogated them brutally. Hurley isn't like that. He is gentle, almost passive. When he gets a brusque refusal to speak, he usually just says "Fair enough," and moves on.

We do meet the relatives of the victim, though. There is her brother Charlie (Rob Collins), who looks on Hurley with coldness: Charlotte's murder was just one of numerous family woes that have derailed him. His world-weary sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen), who works in the local diner, can't see what good reopening the case will do, but she eyes the cop with an interest, one that comes to seem halfway romantic. She has the care of Charlie's two teen kids, and a third, her own, Zac (Mark Coe), who's lost interest in school and is going astray. Hurley eventually grants, though reluctantly, some important personal moments with the boy, who's in dire need of a male role model.

Gradually other persons remaining who have a connection to the case emerge. These include especially the eccentric, reclusive abandoned mine dweller Joseph (Nicolas Hope), brother of the deceased chief suspect. As some new bits of information are eked out, what becomes clear is that however sketchily conducted this time too, what matters is that now an investigation is being staged with respect, rather than that it brings out any revelations. In his Hollywood Reporter review David Rooney concludes that the script has "enough indications of what actually happened to Charlotte" to provide the film's "mystery aspect" with "a satisfying payoff," but he admits that this might be "a touch too muted" for "genre fans accustomed to more muscular final acts."

Much as I was drawn into the film's early segments and respectful of its unique overall texture, by the end I found myself falling into that dissatisfied genre fan category Rooney alludes to. But devotees of Australian cinema or of offbeat noir-Westerns nonetheless may find reason to seek out LImbo, whose virtual score-less package and elegant visual severity contribute to a unique and often beautiful look and a distinctive mood of restraint and disgruntlement.

Limbo, 108 mins., debuted in the Berlinale Feb. 23, 2023, showing also at Karlovy Vary, Toronto, and a few other international festivals. It begins a limited US release by Music Box starting at Film Forum in New York and Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles Mar. 22, 2024. . Metacritic rating: 78%.

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