Inriguing HBO documentary about the strange disappearance of one of the 11 inhabitants of an Australian outback town

Last Stop Larrimah

Source: SXSW

‘Last Stop Larrimah’

Dir. Thomas Tancred. Aus/US, 2023. 117mins

Making his documentary debut, Thomas Tancred – the US-born son of Australian parents – plays with the mythology of the Australian Outback by investigating a murder mystery in a far-flung town of 11 inhabitants; one of whom must have had a hand in the disappearance of local Larrimah larrikin Paddy Moriarty, and his dog Kellie.

Like a postcard from another world

And what an odd bunch they are. Paddy vanished into thin, dusty air on his wobbly way home from the local pub on December 16, 2017, never to be seen again. The mystery has been reported at great length, both locally and internationally (including a podcast), with much focus on the strangeness of living in such a remote place with so few people - it’s a four-hour round trip to the nearest shop. And, even so, the town isn’t big enough for all of them; they hate each other with a passion, and have done so for a long time. This jaunty HBO doc, told in five chapters, is like a postcard from another world.

This is a place of drifter ranch hands, the kind of people who are never without a tinnie in their hand, have a peculiar relationship with the concept of the law and suffer from a tendency to go walkabout, like the Indigenous Australians before them. Related in a determinedly idiosyncratic manner and executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, Last Stop Larrimah is decidedly entertaining (although it loses momentum along its extended running time), both as a whodunnit as well as hard-baked look at Nowhere, Northern Australia. It can occasionally be gripping, but mostly in a voyeuristic way, as if these 10 remaining Larrimah denizens were exhibits like the crocodile that bar owner Barry keeps in his back yard. 

There’s a reptilian air to some of them, certainly, with their sun bleached bodies and darting eyes – the youngest inhabitants (two blow-ins) are in their late fifties. And clearly, from the archival footage set around Barry’s bar, The Larrimah Hotel, the once-lively town’s decline has been chronicled by more than one camera crew prior to Paddy’s disappearance. So it’s hard to figure out whether this is ‘real’ Outback Australia, or as fake as the Ponderosa Ranch posters hanging in Paddy’s house.  It won’t stop people enjoying the film, but there’s a strong sense is that Tancred is, at least in part, embracing the cliche.

Paddy was Irish, but his 50 years in Australia as a jobbing cattle station worker robbed him of any brogue, to judge from these past interviews. He was a fixture at The Larrimah Hotel. He left his bar stool that night with his dog and, by all appearances, arrived home safely. It seems clear that foul play was at hand: but the cast of suspects is even smaller than an Agatha Christie novel.

Cameras initially show Paddy to have an easy grin and roguishly charming manner, but he thrived on a feud raging over the years at his neighbour Fran Hodgetts, possibly the town’s strangest resident – though there’s some tough competition in Larrimah for that title. She makes ‘world famous’ pies from her dilapidated cafe, giving her guests plush toys as a memento. Most seem to be camera crews. Like her nine remaining fellow Larrimah residents, she’s happy to talk to Tancred, but she’s no harmless eccentric either, also feuding for Australia with her ex-husband Billy ‘Light Can’. Did Paddy end up in one of her pies?

Billy is an otherworldly sort: he has lost half his tongue to cancer and is all skin and baked, jutting bones, a can of lager constantly in hand. Fellow resident Cookie also gets around in thongs and grimy t-shirts. He hated Paddy, and he hates Barry too. So do Karl and Bobbie. Lenny, 81, doesn’t even bother with the T-shirt in his tin-shack. He gets along with everyone. Karen and Mark, the newcomers, try to do the same, but she’s ever-so-keen on the TV cameras.

The town’s most astute and acidic observer is bartender Richard, a nomadic Aussie and a pleasure to spend time with - at least, through a TV screen. Did he really get fired because he drank more than the customers, or was there another, ulterior, motive for Barry to get rid of him? Another suspect is Fran’s taciturn handyman, a former bare-knuckle boxer: even she’s too scared to talk to him.

Tancred isn’t one to come and go. He has clearly spent a lot of time with the citizens of Larrimah. It doesn’t look like the most comfortable place to film either, dusty and baked and neglected, no phone reception to call home. Every day is like the one that went before, except for the night Paddy disappeared. It’s the town’s only focus.

In true, blunt Aussie fashion, Last Stop Larrimah takes this wild-west story as it comes, and Tancred tells it well. The five-chapter structure is a smart way to frame the whodunnit element, although the pacing isn’t sustained over the whole and the final catch-up with characters drags. The soundtrack is cheerful and knowing, playing out to Peter Allen’s ’I Call Australia Home’. Is this the real old-timer rancher Australia, or the Bonanza of docs? You’re never quite sure. It is a true story, though, believe it or not.

Production company: Duplass Brothers Productions

International sales: Warner Bros Discovery/HBO

Producers: Sean Bradley, Rebecca Saunders

Cinematography: Jesse Gohier-Fleet

Editing: Nicholas Alden

Music Supervisor: Allison Wood