There’s a parched austerity to the landscape of the Australian outback, along with an embedded history of conflict between Indigenous and invading occupants, that makes it irresistibly well-suited to screen westerns. But there’s a loneliness to it, too, a sense that its quiet vastness could swallow you whole and without trace, that lends itself as easily to moody, smoky mystery.
Aboriginal filmmaker Ivan Sen has twice before dabbled in the harsh, dry space where those genre possibilities overlap, in his features “Goldstone” and “Mystery Road.” In his latest, most accomplished film “Limbo,” he once more surveys the region with a critical eye, finding a history of racial injustice in its sharp cracks and long shadows. But the genre styling this time has been pushed all the way to stark, monochromatic stylization. This is outback noir — oblique, secretive and as hard-boiled as the ground is hard-baked — and Sen wears it well.
Admittedly, with his straight-cut jeans, Western shirt and silvery belt buckle that could take a man’s eye out, “Limbo’s” taciturn hero seems less like a suave gumshoe than he does a cowboy, a surly, crusading Man With No Name. He does have a name, as it happens: Travis Hurley, a hardened police detective blown in from far away to investigate a 20-year-old murder in the bare, desolate and fictitious town of Limbo in South Australia. Played by a craggy, buzz-cut Simon Baker — initially near-unrecognizable and never better — with an air of exhaustion that meets its match in this depleted opal-mining community, he exudes more rogue menace than institutional authority: One child remarks that he looks like a drug dealer, not a cop. (He does indeed have a private, lingering heroin habit.)
But Travis isn’t a thug, exactly. He carries out his cold case review with a quiet sense of duty and a tacit hint of shame, mindful of the fact that white policemen decades before him didn’t exactly exercise all due diligence in probing the disappearance and murder of a young Indigenous girl, Charlotte Hayes. The investigation, we learn, was slack and skimpy, disproportionately and aggressively focused on Indigenous men as suspects. Small wonder that those in Limbo who remember the fiasco are loath to talk when another pale out-of-towner comes sniffing around.
The victim’s brother Charlie (an excellent Rob Collins) regards Travis with particularly cold wariness: Charlotte’s murder, it appears, is one of many familial and cultural losses that has set his life forever off-track. His world-weary sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) is less hostile, but still skeptical that reopening this wound will amount to much. A single mother making a modest living at the local diner, she’s also assumed care of Charlie’s two children, and life in the present tense is hard enough without dredging up the past. She’s intrigued, however, by this gruff stranger who seems to carry his own burden of sorrow, and they build a tentative, not-quite-romantic rapport, beautifully played by Baker and Wanganeen with a mutually watchful reserve that haltingly cracks into vulnerable candor.
Car trouble, meanwhile, compels Travis to extend this seemingly hopeless case review, temporarily swapping his executive sedan for a wide, rusty Dodge that sets him to the whole town’s rhythm of slowed decay. And so he goes exploring its crevices, permitting Sen ample space and time to burrow into the geographic and atmospheric curiosities of this eerie, wind-licked landscape. Here, many buildings are carved into the rocks or underground — production designer Adam Head makes much of the sparse, grotto-like menace of Travis’ fleapit motel — while local caves hold burnt-out secrets, invisible in the striking aerial shots that present Limbo as little more than a lunar quilt of craters and sand swirls. Every mineral seems to have long ago been mined from the place; locals must live on the dirt that remains.
A virtual one-man band as a filmmaker, writer-director Sen also takes sole credit for cinematography, editing, music (sparse) and visual effects (sparser still). This degree of control yields less a sense of indulgence, however, than of crisp, exacting discipline — best demonstrated in the director’s clean, spartan but mood-drenched black-and-white lensing, in which no empty space feels emotionally uncharged.
The visual language of film noir tends to give the truth a place to hide; here, caverns of shadow deliver the goods, but there’s just as much to uncover in broad, punishing daylight: Many shots stress the high, wide sky and dusty sprawl of scrub surrounding this town of tragedy, where individual lives are rendered puny and throwaway against the elements. How can Travis hope to make a dent here? Baker’s grainily compelling performance carries “Limbo,” however, by leaning into that futility. Sturdy and still, becoming one with his aridly dejected surroundings, he tensely waits for any break in the silence, knowing his complicity in echoed history. “Limbo” joins a long line of fine Australian films taking to the desert to disinter racial trauma, to rebury the bones with more care and awareness, but also enduring fury.