Limbo: Trial and Tribulation, by Darrell Tuffs
A silhouetted figure stands before a sinister red light projecting the horrifyingly long shadow of the horned and monstrous devil itself. Meanwhile, our assumed protagonist sits tied to a chair, forced to look on in hopelessness as the manifestation of all the world’s evil creeps slowly towards him. Above we read the words ‘ judgment comes for us all’.
Chances are that the scenario I just described paints an image of a dark film, perhaps one with jump scares, never-ending tension, and harsh violence throughout. Indeed, what I just described is the poster and tagline for writer and director Mark Young’s Limbo (2020). Yet the film itself is something way more terrifying, much more sinister, and with more evil spirits than you will find anywhere… are you ready? … don’t scream… a legal drama!
Ok – so I’m half kidding, but what you see from the film’s marketing isn’t really what you get on screen, and if you ask me, that’s a good thing.
I was expecting Limbo to be fun, yet I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly interesting. Perhaps a generic horror focused on a poor soul who tries to escape the devil at all costs; he runs and runs but can never escape judgment. That’s what the poster seems to want you to think. But the film in actuality doesn’t want to be just a generic horror film, it wants to be something genuinely different, and though Limbo has its many faults, I respect the film’s attempts to subvert expectations.
The film focuses on Jimmy (Lew Temple), a lonely and emotionally damaged man who finds himself trapped in what the film calls ‘Limbo’, a half-way between heaven and hell where souls are judged and deemed suitable for one of the two locations. Jimmy has led a troubled life, ending in a failed robbery that results in his death, but not before he kills an innocent and well-meaning shop owner. In ‘Limbo’, Jimmy meets two angels, Balthazar (Lucian Charles Collier) the prosecutor, and Cassiel (Scottie Thompson) the defense.
The film plays out mostly in one room and with these three characters, including flashbacks to recent events in Jimmy’s life. The narrative is always interesting, (which is also helped by a short running time) including bursts of cleverly written dialogue and character blemishes. As Balthazar and Cassiel present their case for and against Jimmy being sent to hell, we slowly learn more about Jimmy’s life and the types of circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did.
At first, the film seems to be centered on questions of morality. Can Cassiel find a truly selfless act within Jimmy’s life that would morally counteract the murder of the shopkeeper? Is such a thing even possible, ethically speaking? And, even if she could, does such an act make up for a life of violence, aggression, and ultimately, murder? These are the questions asked by the film and its central characters.
As we move into the film’s second half, we begin to learn more about Balthazar, his pass connections to heaven, and how the film might be more about his past and the decisions he makes, rather than the life that Jimmy had led.
There are some fun performances throughout the film, including James Purefoy as the Devil himself, and Richard Riehle as a joke-telling demon. These performances make Limbo self-aware; the film can be seen to have somewhat of a trivial plot when unpicked, yet the script manages to insert some grounded emotion and philosophical questioning while at the same time never quite taking itself too seriously. These moments are also balanced with a light sense of humor, adding a much-needed relief during some of the film’s more dialogue-heavy moments.
Of course, the film does at times acquire an unfortunate tendency to over-explain its relatively simple plot through unneeded exposition. This might be expected with such a narrative, but at times I did wish the film had explored more creative ways to show me what was happening rather than tell me. For example, when Cassiel explains to Jimmy that he is, in fact, dead and awaiting judgment, it would have been great to see a visual representation of just how bad hell is, to show how much Jimmy might want to avoid it or to get a pictorial sense of how serious the situation is. Instead, we rarely ever leave the interrogation room and are mainly ‘told’ of what might happen to Jimmy and how close to eternal suffering he is.
In all Limbo is a surprisingly interesting watch with little fright or horror, but with much genuine interest for its characters planted within the seams of its narrative. You won’t find any visual dazzlement or even any carefully build cinematic dread, but you will think, you will have your interest solidly held, and you may well find its ending honorably unanticipated.