Like most good westerns, Limbo begins when a stranger rolls into town. Travis, a jaded detective played by Simon Baker, has been sent to the remote mining town of Limbo on a fool’s errand – to investigate the cold case disappearance of Charlotte Hayes, a local Indigenous girl who’s been missing for 20 years.
It’s a mystery Travis has no intention of solving but, as he finds himself stranded in Limbo with little to fill his days besides an incomplete case file (and his own demons), things begin to reveal themselves. Travis moves through town, spending time with Charlotte’s deeply fractured surviving family – her siblings Charlie (Rob Collins) and Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) and their children – as well as searching for answers from Joseph (Nicholas Hope), the ailing brother of the long-dead chief suspect, who seems to know more than he’s letting on.
Limbo is a film that gravitates towards the grey areas of life, pressing on bruises and picking at the things we’d rather keep buried. Written, directed, composed and produced by Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, Mystery Road), the film is an outback neo-noir film – shot in black and white – but it’s far from a straightforward “whodunit”. It’s a visually striking film with beautifully composed wide-angle shots and dramatic sweeping vistas caught by drones. The film highlights the reality of injustices faced by Indigenous communities and features a mighty and career-best performance by Baker. (In reviews his performance has been called “transcendent” and “never better”.)
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Limbo premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and was nominated for the festival’s prestigious Golden Bear, which honours the festival’s best film.
Broadsheet spoke to Baker about his performance in Limbo, his relationship with director Ivan Sen and what it was like to film in one of Australia’s most remote towns.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was your reaction when Ivan Sen told you the film would be shot in black and white? Did it alter your performance in any way?
He sent me the scripts about eight months to a year before we started shooting. We played around with it, made some changes to make it stronger and more potent. Then, Ivan, he’d been out to Coober Pedy and he’d taken [still] images and he was playing with them in black and white. He wanted to shoot it in black and white. I was excited by that because I’d made a film a couple of years ago called Breath and when I edited that film, we edited it in black and white. There’s a part of your brain that that is taken up by processing colour. And this is just my theory: when you look at black and white, you’re looking deeper at the drama of what’s going on.
And I knew that if he was going to commit to black and white then it would impact performance and I could probably do less because [the audience] would be seeing all the drama more. It focuses the drama a little bit. I think it was a great choice. It allowed me to be more subtle. Ivan and I are very similar in the sense that I like what happens in the silences. I like the non-verbal communication on screen and he, as a director, supports that. To work with the director and know that he’s going to support the silences in a character gave me a lot more to play with.
What was it like filming on location in Coober Pedy? You’ve filmed there before when it was moonlighting as Mars – was it a different experience having it on screen as itself?
Yeah, I stayed in the same hotel, and I don’t think it changed much. It was Red Planet [that originally brought me to Coober Pedy] and it was a Warner Brothers movie with Val Kilmer, who was a big star at the time, so we had a budget. So, to go and shoot this little film in 16 days was great because everything is very considered with Ivan. And I like working that way. It’s really a comfort to work with a director that you know is considering every single detail.
He knew that place like the back of his hand. He pre-scouted all the locations, he photographed basically the entire film before we even got there. To work on a really small-budget film on a short period of time, it’s more or less analogue filmmaking. There are no visual effects anywhere; it’s all practical. There’s not one set built: we shot in the Catholic church, we shot in the motel, you know, all of that was real.
Ivan not only directed the film but wrote, produced and edited and even composed the score, while also doing all the cinemaphotography. Did your approach change knowing one person would be across all these roles?
I met Ivan many years ago, when he was just out of film school, and I was living in America. We met on a project and that never came about but I really liked him. He went on to make a couple of different films and I went and established a career in the States. I think Ivan’s got a very singular voice and he an incredible technician. Being a filmmaker myself, I was really interested in seeing how he worked … that was kind of inspiring for me.
Often on a film, there’s a lot of people involved, you know. As an actor you deliver a certain performance and then someone reinterprets that. There are so many ways it can move away from the true essence of what the performance is, or what the story is. And when you’re working with someone like Ivan, there was a very clear element of trust [between us] from very early on.
When watching the film, I was struck by the fact that it seemed to exist outside of a specific period. Maybe that comes down to the fact that Coober Pedy feels like it’s been frozen in time, the outback noir genre, or maybe the fact that the sort of injustices Limbo highlights are sadly common. When you were approaching your performance, did you have a specific decade in mind?
Not specifically. But I knew that the landscape and the style in which the film was shot would have this sort of “separated” time zone. The film’s called Limbo and there is this sort of limbo nature to [the story]. Ivan talked about this sort of stasis, being sort of stuck.
It’s not in the past but it isn’t in the present. If you look at the story of the Charlie character, played by Rob Collins, he talks about the past almost being like the present … The past is sort of present for Charlie and Charlie’s family. Whereas [for] the character of Joseph, Nicholas Hope’s character, the past is forgotten for him. So we’re playing around in this sort of time travel, in essence, and examining how intergenerational trauma can still be so alive in this family, and it can be intentionally forgotten. Ivan was really focused on that notion of people living slightly underground, [and how it creates] a sort of a religious element – a limbo, a sort of purgatory.
There are some great performances from local kids from Coober Pedy, particularly Mark Coe, who made his debut in this film. What was it like watching these kids take their first steps into acting?
I love working with kids. I love working with non-actors. Because if they can just relax and if they feel comfortable, then they do nothing other than tell the truth and you have to be completely present to stay in it with them. There’s a beautiful innocence to watching non-actors work. They don’t know how to fake it, you know? They just do it. And that’s beautiful.
And Mark was lovely, all the kids were really great. And Ivan deals with the kids – within the film and on the set – in a really lovely way. They bring this sort of freshness and innocence. Ivan and I often talk about the fact that the thing that breaks through Travis’s armour is these kids, the innocence of these kids is the thing that gets through.
Limbo debuted at the Berlin Film Festival. How did an international audience react to seeing a town like Coober Pedy on the big screen?
Berlin [was] a very big screening, it was a really successful screening. It’s an incredibly visual movie and seeing it in a cinema is worthwhile because it’s beautifully shot. Ivan’s done a wonderful job with the cinematography, there’s not a single wasted frame. I think the international audiences were blown away by [the scenery] but they were also very interested in in the window into our shared recent Australian history between white Australians and Indigenous Australians and the inconsistencies with the justice system.
I think what often happens with films, a lot of people will push the film into a sort of genre or type … people try to categorise movies into different genres. I guess they looked at this as a sort of neo-noir, western-type genre. For overseas audiences, it’s a window into that world. But for Australian audiences, I think there’s a lot of potency around these particular stories, and I think this is the richness of what our Australian storytelling has the potential to open up – to create more of an understanding and an awareness of marginalised people’s experiences.
Limbo is showing in cinemas around Australia now.