Review: ‘Limbo’ (2023), starring Simon Baker, Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen and Nicholas Hope

April 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Simon Baker and Nicholas Hope in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

“Limbo” (2023)

Directed by Ivan Sen

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, the dramatic film “Limbo” features a cast of white and First Nations/indigenous characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police detective travels from an unnamed Australian city to Limbo to review a cold case about a teenager who disappeared from Limbo 20 years ago. 

Culture Audience: “Limbo” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Simon Baker and well-made, “slow burn” crime dramas about missing people and fractured families.

Pictured from left to right: Simon Baker, Andrew Dingaman and Rob Collins in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

The spellbinding and atmospheric crime drama “Limbo” moves at a pace that might be too slow for some viewers. But beneath this unhurried tone are simmering tensions and resentments over racism and generational trauma. Viewers expecting a format that’s similar to a TV series crime procedural will be disappointed by “Limbo,” which offers no easy answers to the mystery at the center of the story. However, by the end of the film, there is at least one outcome that shows the reality of how people can expect one thing and end up getting something else.

Ivan Sen is the chief creative force of “Limbo,” since he is the movie’s director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, colorist and visual effects supervisor. He is also one of the movie’s producers. “Limbo” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival. “Limbo” earned three nominations for the 2024 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards—Best Indie Film, Best Lead Actor (for Simon Baker) and Best Supporting Actor (for Rob Collins)—and won the prize for Best Indie Film.

“Limbo” takes place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, but the movie was actually filmed in Coober Pedy, Australia, whose main industries are mining and tourism. “Limbo” was filmed in black and white, which makes the desert atmosphere look even more stark and at times even more foreboding than if the movie had been in color. In this remote area depicted in “Limbo,” feels of isolation and stagnation seep into the tone of the movie as well as the character performances.

“Limbo” begins with the arrival of police detective Travis Hurley (played by Baker), who drives into Limbo and stays at the only motel in town: the Limbo Motel. It’s an unusual motel because it’s partially inside a cave. (Several of “Limbo’s” scenes take place inside or near caves.) Therefore, Travis’ room looks like a cave room.

Travis is in Limbo for a few days to review the missing person case of Charlotte Hayes, a First Nations/indigneous person who lived in Limbo and who disappeared when she was a teenager 20 years ago. The case has gone cold, but Travis has been assigned to investigate the case and to find out if there are any new clues that can be uncovered. During his investigation, Travis gets more emotionally involved with Charlotte’s family than he expected when he first arrived in town.

Viewers soon find out that Travis is not a squeaky-clean police officer. One of the first things that he does when he goes in his motel room is melt an unnamed opioid powder in a spoon and shoot up the substance in his arm with a hypodermic needle. Most people will assume that the drug is heroin or Fentanyl, based on how Travis has a “nodding out” reaction after injecting this drug.

Travis’ drug addiction is not mentioned or shown again in the movie, until he has a private conversation with someone where he confesses that he uses drugs. It’s during this conversation that Travis also mentions that he was formerly an undercover narcotics officer and used drugs as part of this job. It’s unknown if he got hooked on drugs directly because of his narcotics officer job or if he had already been addicted. However, what’s clear is that his drug addiction is a secret from almost everyone Travis knows. He tells the person he confesses this secret to that this is the first time Travis has told anyone that he currently uses drugs.

Most of “Limbo” shows Travis doing interviews with Charlotte’s family members and other potential witnesses. The people he spends the most time with are Charlotte’s older stepbrother Charlie (played by Collins) and Charlie’s sister Emma (played by Natasha Wanganeen), who is a single mother raising three kids. The parents of Charlotte, Charlie and Emma are all deceased.

The family is still haunted by Charlotte’s disappearance and have become disillusioned about ever finding out what happened to her because police have treated cases of missing indigenous people as inferior to cases of missing white people. The indigenous people in the area call themselves “black” people. Charlie tells Travis that in Charlotte’s missing person case, police delayed investigating until a week after Charlotte disappeared. Charlie and Emma believe that if Charlotte had been white, police would have investigated Charlotte’s disappearance immediately.

Two of the children whom Emma is raising are actually Charlie’s biological kids: rebellious and sullen son Zac (played by Marc Coe) is about 12 or 13 years old, while cheeky and inquisitive daughter Ava (played by Tiana Hartwig) is about 9 or 10 years old. Emma’s biological daughter Jessie (played by Alexis Lennon), who is about 11 or 12 years old, has an absentee father, and she is often bluntly rude and brutally honest. For example, Jessie tells Travis that he looks like a drug dealer instead of a cop.

Charlie is a bachelor who lives alone. Why is Emma taking care of Charlie’s children? The movie doesn’t mention what happened to the mother(s) of Zac and Ava, but Emma tells Travis that Charlie had some type of guilt-ridden mental breakdown after Charlotte disappeared. For a while, Charlie was under suspicion for Charlotte’s disappearance, but he insists that he was falsely accused by two local indigenous men, one of whom had a personal grudge against Charlie. Charlie says he was at a cousin’s house when Charlotte disappeared. Charlie has been estranged from his children for years and doesn’t talk to them, but he will often drive by in his truck and look at his children, and then drive away.

As Travis continues his investigation, he hears more about the racial divide in Limbo. This racial tension doesn’t surprise Travis, but he sees firsthand how this racism can affect people’s lives and attitudes. Charlie is very suspicious of Travis when they first meet each other and says to Travis, “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.” However, Charlie eventually opens up to Travis when he sees that Travis is the Hayes family’s best chance of getting Charlotte’s case investigated. Emma is also wary of Travis at first (but she’s not as openly hostile as Charlie is), and she eventually agrees to be interviewed by Travis too, which she does separately from Charlie.

During interviews and conversations between Charlie and Travis, Charlie sometimes bitterly complains about how indigenous people are unfairly targeted by white law enforcement officers, who are quick to harass or arrest indigenous people for the same things that police officers excuse or ignore if white people do these things. There’s a scene where Travis and Charlie are talking outside while Charlie is drinking a beer. A police car drives by them and doesn’t stop. Charlie says to Travis: “Usually, they tell you to move along [for] drinking on the street like this.” Charlie tells Travis why he thinks the police inside the car didn’t stop to reprimand Charlie: “Maybe because of you.” In other words, Charlie is saying that Travis has white privilege.

Throughout the investigation, Travis keeps hearing about a white man named Leon, whom Charlie and Emma believe is the most likely suspect in Charlotte’s disappearance. Leon had a reputation in the area for hosting parties for young people, who got alcohol and maybe other drugs illegally from him. Leon seemed especially fixated on indigenous teenage girls. Leon had a green Ford Laser at the time of Charlotte’s disappearance. What happened to that car is revealed in the movie.

Travis finds out soon after he arrives in Limbo that Leon died of dementia the year before. Leon’s elderly brother Joseph (played by Nicholas Hope), who is a heavy drinker and is in obvious ill health, tells Travis about Leon dying and also shows Leon’s unmarked grave to Travis. Leon’s photo is never seen in movie, but it’s implied that Leon was close to the same age as Joseph, so Leon was most likely a middle-aged man when Charlotte disappeared. Travis also listens to audio recordings of interviews that police did separately with Charlie and Leon, who also denied anything to do with Charlotte’s disappearance.

As Charlie begins to cooperate more with Travis, Charlie points Travis in the direction of more potential witnesses in the First Nations/indigenous community. A middle-aged man named Stoney (played by Andrew Digaman), who is very suspicious of police, told Charlie that years ago in a pub, Leon once made a drunken confession to Stoney that Leon killed an unnamed person. Oscar Porter (played by Joshua Warrior), who had a personal feud with Charlie that involved at least one physical brawl, was one of the men who accused Charlie of having something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Travis finds out that Oscar’s accusation was because of something other than a personal vendetta against Charlie.

Because Travis is only in town for a few days, and he is the only investigating officer for this cold case review, the chances are very slim that Travis will solve this case in such a short period of time. However, there is enough revealed in the story for viewers to put together the pieces of this puzzle, as certain conclusions can be made, based on what Travis and other people discover. Viewers will have to look for visual clues, as well as consider things that are said and the credibility of the people saying these things.

It’s not revealed right away, but Travis is a divorced father who is no longer in contact with his only child (a son) because his ex-wife remarried, and his son likes his stepfather more than he likes Travis. When Travis tells Emma about his family situation, he describes it as bowing out of his son’s life, but you get the feeling that there’s more to the story that Travis isn’t telling, especially since his drug addiction undoubtedly affects all aspects of his life. “Limbo” doesn’t go too deep into Travis’ personal history, but this information about being estranged from his son is enough to see why Travis is emotionally touched by Charlie’s estrangement from his own children—especially with Zac, who feels abandoned by Charlie and is very angry at Charlie.

Emma makes a confession to Travis about something that happened in her past. This confession shows that Charlie isn’t the only one who feels guilty about Charlotte’s disappearance. Baker, Collins and Wanganeen give admirable performances as three damaged but not completely broken people who are doing what they can to ease some of their pain and hopefully heal. By the end of the movie, viewers will care not just about the “whodunit” aspect of the story but will also be concerned about the well-being of these characters.

“Limbo” is the name of the movie and the name of the fictional town in the movie, but it also describes the tragic state of mind that loved ones of missing people feel when they don’t know what happened to their loved ones who disappeared. Travis sees the trauma that this case has brought onto the Hayes family, so it makes him confront certain issues in his own life. The way that Travis reacts doesn’t make his problems go away but it might give him a little bit of redemption. “Limbo” is a solemn and meaningful reminder that when people talk about a system that fails, there are untold numbers of people who get hurt and might never recover.

Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films released “Limbo” in select U.S. cinemas on March 22, 2024. The movie was released in Australia and part of Europe in 2023.

Review: ‘Limbo’ (2021), starring Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard, Sodienye Ojewuyi and Sidse Babett Knudsen

April 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Amir El-Masry and Ola Orebiyi in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Limbo” (2021)

Directed by Ben Sharrock

Some language in Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Scotland, the dramedy film “Limbo” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Arabic, African and white British people) representing refugees, the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Syrian refugee meets and befriends other refugees in a settlement in Scotland, as they wait to find out if they will be officially given asylum in the United Kingdom.

Culture Audience: “Limbo” will appeal primarily to people interested in quirky films about the refugee experience from the perspective of a Syrian character.

Vikash Bhai and Amir Al-Masry in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Writer/director Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo” looks a lot like what Miranda July would do if she made a movie about a Syrian refugee in Scotland. It’s a movie that is best enjoyed by people who have tolerance for non-stop quirkiness with some angsty undertones. In other words, “Limbo” isn’t for everyone, but it’s unusual enough to make a lasting impression on people who see it.

Sharrock’s influences from filmmaker July are all over “Limbo,” beginning with the opening scene, which takes place in an adult-education classroom for refugees at a government-run refugee settlement area in an unnamed part of Scotland. The lesson for the day is written on the chalkboard: “Class Cultural Awareness 101: Sex: Is a Smile an Invitation?” The class’s two middle-aged instructors Helga (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (played by Kenneth Collard) are awkwardly dancing with each other to Hot Chocolate’s 1982 song “It Started With a Kiss,” as a way of demonstrating Western mating rituals.

Watching this spectacle is a group of about 20 Arabic and African men, some with their mouths open in a gawking “what the hell am I looking at” expression, as you do in quirky movies like this one. This “dance instruction” is supposed to teach the men about sexual harassment boundaries when approaching women. And so, when Boris reaches over to grab Helga’s rear end, she slaps him. And then she says, “Thank you, Boris. You can now take a seat.”

Helga then turns to the class and asks, “Can anyone tell me what Boris did wrong?” A Syrian refugee in his 40s named Farhad (played by Vikash Bhai) raises his hand tentatively. The answer he gives is never shown in the movie, because the scene is supposed to satirize the patronizing way that these refugees are being treated in this nation where they are racial and ethnic minorities. Of course, things such as dancing and etiquette exist in the countries where these men are originally from, but the class is a metaphor for the European colonial mentality that sees people of color from other countries as brutes in need of social training.

One of the students in the class is a Syrian refugee in his late 20s named Omar (played by Amir El-Masry), the story’s protagonist. Omar is a musician who seems like he could have come straight out of a film made by July: He’s morose, very introspective, and he (like many of the characters in “Limbo”) often speaks with longer-than-usual pauses in between sentences.

Before leaving war-torn Syria, Omar was making a name for himself in his local area as a talent oud player. The oud that Omar brought with him to Scotland was given to him by his grandfather, who was a semi-famous musician in Syria. But ever since Omar has been a refugee, he hasn’t been playing the oud. He doesn’t even really want a lot of people in Scotland to know that he’s a musician.

It’s implied that Omar’s passion for playing music has waned because of his traumatic refugee experiences. But in the beginning of the story, one of the main reasons why Omar doesn’t play his oud is because his right arm is in a cast. Eventually, the cast comes off, but he’s still reluctant to play his oud.

At this refugee settlement, Omar shares living quarters with Farhad and two immigrants from Africa: Wasef (played by Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (played by Kwabena Ansah), who both identify themselves as brothers. Wasef is in his 20s and very cynical, while Abedi is 17 years old and more eager to please. All four of these refugees are waiting to hear if they will be officially granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Their asylum status will determine if they can find legal employment in the U.K. or if they will possibly deported. Omar originally had plans to go to London to work, but he is stuck in Scotland until he finds out if he will be granted asylum. The refugees are told that the bureaucratic process could take weeks or months. In the meantime, Omar, Farhad, Wasef and Abedi find work at a fishery.

One of the recurring scenarios shown in “Limbo” is the phone calls that Omar makes to his parents, who are living as Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. Even though Omar and many of the refugees have their own mobile phones, “Limbo” shows the refugees using a single pay phone outside to make calls to their families. It’s never explained why they use this old-fashioned pay phone, but they gather and wait to take turns using this pay phone. Viewers can speculate that it’s supposed to conjures up images of people in prison waiting to use a phone.

During the phone calls to his family, Omar usually speaks to his mother (voiced by Darina Al Joundi), while Omar’s father (voiced by Nayef Rashed) can be heard occasionally joining in the conversation from the background. Omar’s parents, who don’t have names in the movie, are briefly seen in some video footage later in the movie. Shereen Sadiq portrays Omar’s mother, and Hayan Rich portrays his father in this footage.

The biggest insecurity that Omar has when it comes to his family is feeling inadequate compared to his older brother Hamad (played by Sodienye Ojewuyi), who is a soldier in the Syrian civil war. Hamad and Omar are estranged from each other. It’s implied that this estrangement is because Hamad thinks Omar is a coward for not being in the military.

When Omar speaks to his mother on the phone, she always asks Omar if he’s heard from Hamad. The answer is always no, and this type of questioning annoys Omar. It also irritates him when his mother suggests that Omar try to reach out to Hamad. Omar always has to remind his mother that he doesn’t know where Hamad is.

Abedi and Wasef get into some family squabbles too, but not to the extent where they stop talking to each other. Wasef tells Abedi what he thinks of the U.K. government: “You know they put us out here to break us.” Abedi is more willing to assimilate into this new environment than Wasef is. Meanwhile, when Wasef announces that he wants to be a soccer player/footballer, Abedi scoffs at the idea.

As for Farhad, he has a fascination with Fredde Mercury, the lead singer of Queen who died in 1991. Farhad tells Omar how he feels about Mercury: “He’s my hero. He taught me English. We have the same mustache. He’s Zoroastrian like me.” And when Farhad smuggles a chicken into the living quarters, he names the chicken Freddie Mercury.

Farhad and Omar become friends, and Farhad encourages Omar to start playing his oud. However, there’s an underlying understanding that they don’t want to get too close to each other because one person’s immigration status can change. And that could mean leaving the settlement area voluntarily or by government orders. While Omar thinks he might return to Syria one day, Farhad says he never wants to go back. “I can’t be myself there,” Farhad tells Omar, thereby implying that Farhad is gay or queer.

The refugee experiences in the story range from comedic depictions of their adjustments to Western culture to satirical depictions of the ugliness of racism. For example, the four housemates end up getting free DVDs of the sitcom “Friends” from the donation center where they receive supplies, because the DVDs were easier to get than highly coveted cots. The movie shows how they spend time watching the DVDs. In one scene, Abedi and Wasef have a heated argument about the breakup of “Friends” characters Rachel Greene and Ross Geller.

Omar experiences racism when he’s walking down a road and encounters four rude teenagers driving by in a car: Plug (played by Cameron Fulton), Stevie (Lewis Gribben), Cheryl (played by Silvie Furneaux) and Tia (played by Iona Elizabeth Thomson). Stevie says to Omar, “Don’t blow up shite and rape anyone, right?” But after a barrage of Islamaphobic and racist insults, the teens offer Omar a ride because it’s about to rain. And he accepts the ride.

Occasionally, Omar goes to a grocery store that sells sells ethnic food on shelves that are close to empty. At the grocery store, he encounters the Sikh owner Vikram (played by Sanjeev Kohli), who operates the cash register up front. Vikram is one of those movie characters who stares too long at people and talks in that slow cadence that oddball characters have in oddball movies like this one. However, Vikram teaches Omar a few valuable lessons about what are racial/ethnic slurs in Great Britain. These slurs aren’t allowed in Vikram’s store, and he has a list of “banned words” posted on the wall.

The first half of “Limbo” has a more consistent tone than the second half. The latter half of the film takes a significant detour from quirkiness into some heavy emotional family drama for Omar, before sliding back into the eccentric vibe that it had from the start. And there’s some predictable sentimentality in the film. It’s a transition that is a bit clumsy but apparently done to make Omar more of a relatable human being instead of just a two-dimensional “sad sack” character.

Nick Cooke’s cinematography in “Limbo” has some slow, sideways tracking shots that are reminiscent of Wes Anderson movies. And just like a movie from Anderson, “Limbo” has some whimsical production design that invokes the idea of adults in a children’s setting, with splashes of the fantastical. A children’s playground near the settlement area is used in scenes where the adults have conversations. And the promise of seeing northern lights plays a role in a pivotal scene in the movie.

Weirdo films like “Limbo” are an acquired taste. El-Masry does a good-enough job with his performance as the conflicted and somber Omar. However, Ojewuyi’s portrayal of Farhad is the real scene-stealer of the movie. Farhad’s optimism and kooky antics make him more endearing and entertaining to watch than Omar. “Limbo” isn’t a bad movie, but it would’ve been more interesting if Farhad had been the main character.

Focus Features released “Limbo” in select U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021.

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