I wasn’t blown away by the trailer for Limbo, a comedy/drama and official selection for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival before the pandemic cancelled all of our fun. But at least it looked like it had personality. True, that personality seemed to be borrowed wholesale from Wes Anderson, and the whole endeavor looked like a parody of the Andersonian aesthetic and of indie films from the ‘90s in general. One cliché after another abounded in the trailer, incongruous reactions, non-sequiturs, odd details like a guy waking up with a chicken named Freddie Jr. (You know, after Freddie Mercury of course) in his bed, etc. It looked like Quirky: The Movie.
Limbo is much better than that, though. I’m glad I gave it a shot.
Things start off inauspiciously, though. A long scene of two teachers awkwardly playacting examples of improper sexual advances to an audience of refugees who stare in deadpan silence.
Uh-oh. Major Quirk Alert.
We’re in Scotland, specifically a desolate patch of the country that’s always gray and windy. The wonderful sound design consistently reminds you of how cold and bleak this place is even when indoors. Barely is there a moment we don’t hear howling wind in the background and the icy pinpricks of rain. Existing in this desolate, yet alluring, landscape is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee waiting to be granted asylum.
Exist is the right word for Omar because that’s all he can do. He’s not allowed to work. He can’t create lasting relationships because at any moment he may be called to the “promised land” or may be dragged back to the hell of his war torn home. All he can do is watch Friends with his roommate asylum seekers and call his parents –who aren’t doing much better in Istanbul– from a lone phone booth in the middle of a barren nowhere.
There’s a lot of waiting in the movie. Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris type of waiting. With a title like Limbo that shouldn’t be a surprise. The impressive thing is what the movie does while being stuck in neutral. By the end, without betraying its tone, you don’t feel that the whole trip was pointless.
You see, there’s a warmth underneath the quirk, which when I think about it, with its clear-cut cinematography and editing to maximize deadpan reactions suggests more Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite sans childishness than Wes Anderson’s intricate tableaus. But also, its weirdness doesn’t come off as quirk for quirk’s sake (which Hess is guilty of). There’s a reason Freddie Jr., that chicken I mentioned earlier, has that name. There’s reason for almost all of the quirky behavior, even all the deadpan reactions. These asylum seekers are shell shocked strangers in a strange land. Their Buster Keaton-like non-reactions to the world around them may seem weird, and yes, a little funny also, but really it’s just a natural extension of their headspace: severely confused, weary, and desperately sad. Not so funny anymore.
Omar may look like he’s just staring blankly, but with all credit to Amir El-Masry, he does that difficult thing of suggesting hidden depths of emotions through his seemingly unchanging eyes. But are they really that unchanging? There are so many moments where you can see laughter and compassion welling up in them. He’s just too worn down to let them out.
My mom was an asylum seeker. She, like these characters, had to spend time in the UK, just waiting. She doesn’t talk about it much. Not that it was horrible, I think. It was just that, a sad stopgap, waiting to hopefully go on to bigger and brighter things. Not much else to say. Limbo’s writer and director Ben Sharrock deftly weaves comedy and drama together to bring this experience to life and still find something to say, finding a way to give Omar an arc, a reason to go through this without falling into cliché or over-explanation to get there.
After watching a lot of big budget studio stuff over the last couple of months, some dumb but fun enough (Hi, Godzilla vs. Kong) and some of it just dumb (Looking at you, Mortal Kombat), it’s refreshing to watch something as precisely and rigorously crafted as Limbo. No shot or edit wasted. Everything exactly where the director wants it to be to tell a story that switches between comedy and drama without making one incongruous to the other. Limbo is a special movie. Don’t wait to see it.
Limbo opens today, April 30, 2021 in movie theaters across the country including South Florida (Sadly, there’s no VOD at the moment).