Review by Sean Boelman
Australian auteur Ivan Sen’s mystery-thriller Limbo debuted at the 2023 Berlinale earlier this year to great acclaim. While it is understandable why this visually sumptuous film has been so critically lauded, it is a bit too slow for its own good, and the script’s approach to its themes is frustrating more often than not.
The movie follows a detective who investigates a twenty-year-old cold case murder in the Australian outback. Although the plot itself is a relatively standard procedural thriller, Sen’s approach to it is much more restrained and melodrama-free than one would likely expect from a film with this story.
Sen’s visuals in the movie are undeniably fantastic. His crisp black-and-white cinematography is indisputably strong — although the use of monochrome to show a land lacking in clear morality is a bit of a tired cliché — with plenty of compositions that are stunning. However, the true hero here are the locations and production design, using the caverns and mounds of its setting to create a striking world and atmosphere.
That being said, for all of the heavy lifting the film’s aesthetics do to create an immersive cinematic experience, the lethargic pacing really drags the movie down. Although this is clearly meant to be a slow burn, it’s so excessively slow that it becomes cumbersome. Add in the fact that the final act feels rather anticlimactic, and viewers will walk away feeling largely unsatisfied.
The film does have a deeper message relating to the state of the justice system in Australia and how it fails the Indigenous community. This is a theme that is likely highly relatable to Americans because of the way our own BIPOC are often victimized (or at best, abandoned) by the police. However, Sen’s screenplay is unable to strike an effective balance between the more overtly political statements and its more subtly angry undertones.
One of the movie’s biggest mistakes is that it frames these themes through the lens of a white protagonist. The Indigenous characters do not have sufficient depth, and often feel like they exist in service of the protagonist’s arc. And while the protagonist’s growth is of accepting his guilt and complicity in injustice, it still feels too whitewashed — surprising considering that the film was made by an Indigenous filmmaker.
That being said, despite the character often being frustratingly written, Simon Baker’s performance is genuinely fantastic. Baker’s turn is transformative, but not in a way that is from heavy prosthetics or a physical transformation. Instead, it’s just Baker’s harrowingly convincing emotion that feels so radically different from much of what he has done before.
There’s a lot of good happening in Limbo, and there’s a ton of potential for this to be something more than it is. However, the glacial pacing and sometimes ineffective approach to its characters and themes prevents Ivan Sen’s film from connecting as well as it likely should have.
Limbo is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.