Limbo, directorial debut by Ben Sharrock, is sure to be a divisive experience for many viewers. The highly stylized, tableau-like compositions are bound to remind many of Wes Anderson. The awkward, “quirky” characters are sure to bring Napoleon Dynamite to-mind. But, to limit Limbo with these short-hand points of comparison is to miss much of this movie’s depth and beauty.
Limbo follows Omar (Amir El-Masry), as a new resident of a refugee community on an isolated Scottish island. This desolate and often unforgiving environment contains weather patterns that range from windy and overcast to windy and snowy. Per the movie’s title, many of the refugees wait years on this inhospitable rock to find out if they will be allowed asylum as proper members of Scottish society or if they will be deported.
Omar quickly finds himself paired up with Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a refugee from Iraq. Farhad notes that Omar may have a better chance of asylum because Omar’s Syrian refugee-status is much more fashionable than the “expired” conflict countries like Iraq or Somalia. All of this might seem heavy and dour, but the contrast of the aforementioned stylized presentation and ultra-dry humor elevates the proceedings.
The success or failure of Limbo will ultimately rest on whether viewers find themselves invested in Omar’s plight. Much of the movie is from Omar’s subjective gaze as he is the emotional center of the film. We follow him as he slowly comes to understand the rules and rhythms of life on the island, through both the locals and the other refugees. We also get glimpses of his former life, through phone calls with his parents. Through all of this, Omar carries his grandfather’s oud, an instrument he has apparently mastered but refuses to play. El-Masry’s performance is subtle, yet he has the innate ability to slowly let us to his character’s plight.
Now, let’s really discuss the elephant in the room: the style. Many viewers will never be able to overcome the near Wes Anderson parody of the compositions and character interactions in Limbo. Anderson tends to use his style to explore his visual obsessions and seemingly telegraph to the world how clever he is. Anderson’s characters almost seem like puppets or animated characters. It is no wonder that some of Anderson’s most successful films are stop-motion, disposing of any pretense of any character reality.
Check out Bruce Purkey’s reviews of The Day of the Beast and The Kid with a Bike on Find Your Film:
On the other hand, Sharrock uses the stylization in a different way in Limbo. Sharrock reserves almost all of the “quirk” for the locals. This creates a sense of the subjective point of view of the refugees. It is the locals of the island that seem odd, almost alien. In this way, we are flipping the stereotype on its head, As the movie progresses, the oddness decreases, the severity of composition seems to lessen, or at least we as viewers start to fall into the rhythm. Whichever the case, I found the final third of the movie to be beautiful, sad, and cathartic.
Limbo will be hated by some, frustrating to many, but for those who sink into the world, Limbo might just be one of their favorite movies of 2021.
Check out Bruce Purkey and co-hosts Eric Holmes and Greg Srisavasdi as they review the April 2021 releases Together Together and Stowaway: