Ivan Sen’s latest foray into the detective genre, Limbo, places a white cop at the centre of an investigation to re-open a twenty-year-old case about the disappearance of an Indigenous teenage girl.
Listen to our podcast on Australian westerns<, including Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country. And stay tuned for our interview with Ivan Sen on Limbo!/p>
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Director Ivan Sen’s (Mystery Road, Goldstone) latest foray into the detective genre, Limbo, places a white cop, Travis (Simon Baker), at the centre of an investigation to re-open a twenty-year-old case about the disappearance of an Indigenous teenager named Charlotte. The film is less about the case or the detective tasked with potentially reopening it and more about the people for whom it never became a cold one. So many years on, the case lives in the silences between the words, in evidence that points to truths but can’t prove them.
Although Travis is the nominal protagonist and our entrée into the community and the story, Charlotte’s family and their community take centre stage — literally, in the framing, and figuratively, in the plot. Travis doesn’t allow himself to take up space, twisting his body inwards, averting his gaze from the camera and the people around him. He speaks quietly, often in a whisper. Sen keeps Travis on the sidelines or background of the frame, often covered in shadow, especially when sharing scenes with Indigenous characters. When Travis does face the camera, he’s often so small in the frame that you have to read his reactions through his body language. It’s an early signal from both actor and director that this isn’t a white saviour narrative.
Reopening the case allows people to tell their stories
The unexplained renewed interest by the police force in the case sparks the story. It’s as if the people affected by Charlotte’s likely murder have been waiting this long to tell it. When Travis first arrives on the doorstep of Charlotte’s brother, Charlie (Rob Collins), and later, their sister, Emma (Natasha Wanganeen), they emerge from the shadows. Charlie pops his head out of a cave and into the narrative. The camera and Travis move toward Emma until the frame includes her, smoking a cigarette. They’ve been there all along, waiting for the camera (and Travis) to find them.
But nobody is particularly forthcoming with Travis. They have good reason to distrust a white cop. White cops were the ones who botched the case back when. Indigenous townspeople were harassed, interrogated, and beaten, damaging their futures. Reopening wounds that have been buried if never fully healed is not easy, especially when your audience has their foot on the pedal, ready to speed out of town, rather than the patience to listen. When Travis’s car breaks down, his omnipresent alarm clock from his first two days disappears. He starts to pay attention and look deeper now that he has nothing better to do.
Sen follows Travis closely without centering him
In the film’s first half, Sen hews closely to Travis’s side; very few scenes exist without him. We get only occasional scenes that introduce us to Emma and her children, two of whom are Charlie’s, but she’s been raising them since he broke down. As Travis gets increasingly invested in Charlie’s and Emma’s stories, Sen spends more time away from Travis and with Emma and Charlie.
In the wake of Charlotte’s disappearance, relationships have fractured. Charlie hasn’t seen his children in years, though he drives up to check on them from afar regularly. It means that, ironically, this white outsider cop has the most complete picture of the family. As someone who has fractured his own family and can directly empathize, Travis is also uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge to help the family take the next step. He sees himself and his failed relationship with his son in Charlie’s quiet desperation. As the film progresses, Sen parallels Charlie’s and Travis’s stories more and more in the cutting. Meanwhile, an unexpected dinner invitation from Emma, who takes an interest in the sad cop — any outsider is a novelty in a small town — leads to the film’s most tender, heartbreaking, and lighthearted moments.
Ivan Sen serves as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and composer on Limbo
As a writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and composer, Sen has incredible control over his film, allowing him to ensure that all elements work together synergistically. Coober Pedy, a remote Opal mining town in South Australia, proves the perfect setting for a story about people hollowed out by institutional colonial damage who live in a town that has hollowed out the land. People live in homes underground, carved out of the rocky hillside, and the land is full of holes from mining.
It’s also a place with space, too much space. Whenever Travis visits a local, Sen’s wide cinemascope shots reveal no other people or buildings for miles. Everything and everyone is physically and emotionally far from everything that matters. We spend long periods with Travis in his car, driving from location to location. Yet Sen’s camera often spots the locals walking along the road. It’s harder for them to cross those distances than for a man with a car from out of town.
A deliberate pace lets the performances breathe
Sen isn’t in a rush, meaning there’s time for meaningful glances and characters at a loss for words. The cutting in the film keeps a steady pace; what feels deliberately paced at the start, full of pregnant pauses, gains traction as we get more invested in the characters’ stories. It helps that Sen has cast such remarkable actors. Although Baker takes a deliberate backseat, it creates a mystery around him that you want to unpack. The few moments we see his face are among the film’s strongest.
Whenever Rob Collins and Natasha Wanganeen are on screen, you can’t take your eyes off them. Collins plays Charlie as a man of contradictions who carries deep wounds he doesn’t know how to heal. He wants to reach out but isn’t sure how. Waganeen’s Emma, by contrast, carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. She cares for their children with warmth despite her pain.
Shooting economically and over just 15 days, Sen favours two shots, where we can watch both characters in a scene at all times. It makes us conscious of the space between the characters in the frame, who are often at opposite ends of a wide shot. More intimate indoor spaces, where there isn’t vast land to escape into, became places of intimate emotions.
Sen’s black-and-white cinematography turns Coober Pedy, known for its extreme heat, into a cool place. It also focuses your attention on details like textures — the limestone walls, the checkered tiles in a local cafe, the curtains in a home — by removing the distraction of colour. It forces the viewer to look more closely in a way Travis isn’t initially prepared to do but must learn to.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Sen’s work
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a widespread problem in Australia, as it is in Canada. It has been the subject of previous work by Sen (the Mystery Road films and TV series) but was about an Indigenous detective, Jay Swann (Aaron Pederson). Jay was trying to fix the colonial police force from within but ran the risk of becoming the problem. The Mystery Road stories were always, in part, about that tension and how Jay dealt with it. In Limbo, Travis is aware of the institutional racism within the police and ultimately tries to avoid being part of it, but is initially distracted by other concerns. He doesn’t want to be there. Nevertheless, he asks thoughtful questions that reveal he knows Indigenous people become easy targets while there are rarely repercussions for white perpetrators.
Travis’s awareness of his place in colonial power dynamics also means he’s careful about stepping over thresholds into Indigenous spaces when he has yet to receive an invitation. When Charlie takes him to meet an Indigenous witness, Charlie serves as the go-between, walking onto the man’s property and deeper into the frame to ask questions on Travis’s behalf. While playing messenger, Charlie repeatedly steps into Travis’s space, stealing cigarettes from his mouth — one for the witness and later one for himself. It’s a very funny moment.
By setting Limbo twenty years after the traumatic events, Sen can tell a story of the ripple effects of trauma. When Emma asks Travis if he will solve the case, he thoughtlessly replies, “Nah, that’s not my job.” He’s just the one who can help re-open it. But his response is telling, too, about Limbo. This isn’t a traditional detective story about finding the bad guys because the bad guys are the system. Instead, it’s about broken people trying to deal with living within the system, finding little steps forward, moments of happiness and perhaps, one day, peace.
Related reading/listening to Ivan Sen’s film Limbo
More Australian Indigenous films: Read my interview with Warwick Thornton about Sweet Country. Listen to the podcast about Australian Westerns, including Sweet Country. Listen to our podcast tribute to Australian Indigenous actor David Gulpilil (Charlie’s Country, Walkabout).
More films like Limbo: Mohawk filmmaker Sonia Boileau explored missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from a Canadian perspective in Rustic Oracle. Read our interview with Boileau on Rustic Oracle. Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Blood Quantum) also used genre films to tell stories about Indigenous trauma. Listen to our podcast memorial of Jeff Barnaby.
More from TIFF 2023: Read all of our TIFF 2023 coverage.