The titular town of Last Stop Larrimah seems a setting ripe for situation comedy. It’s a place with no cell phone reception, no police station, one pub, and a pet crocodile. Deep in the Australian Outback, this former bustling outpost has steadily declined into a deeply eccentric community of just 11 people, colorful characters whose lives are bursting with furious feuds, gruesome gossip, and seemingly preposterous accusations. And that was before one of them went missing.
Documentarian Thomas Tancred treads deep into the snarled stories of Larrimah’s residents, past and present, to untangle the mystery of what happened to Patrick “Paddy” Moriarty, an Irish pot-stirrer who was last seen on Dec. 16, 2017. The true crime documentary Last Stop Larrimah dives not only into the facts of the case but also the wild theories, all the better to reflect the personalities and problems of this captivating and chaotic little town.
That’s the big question of Last Stop Larrimah: An Outback Tale in Five Chapters. Truly, in a town of 11 people, when one seems a victim of foul play, everyone is a suspect. So, Tancred takes his time not only getting to know the missing Moriarty but also the neighbors who loved and loathed him.
A resident of Larrimah since 1966, Moriarty was a vocal defender of his friends — like pub owner Barry — and a ruthless irritant to his foes — like meat pie-seller Fran. In archival news footage pre-dating his disappearance, the Irish immigrant has a bushy mustache, mischievous smile, and elusive turn of phrase as he describes the feuds brewing in the town. When accused of stealing a big red umbrella from a furious neighbor, the plucky pensioner laughs a denial. But Tancred’s editing pauses and zooms in on the footage, revealing not far behind Moriarty a big red umbrella, flapping in the breeze like a big red flag.
Depending on who you ask, Moriarty was a loyal friend, a mean drunk, a playful scamp, or an unholy terror who broke up marriages and dragged dead kangaroos beneath bedroom windows as a putrid prank. So, one night, when he wandered away from the pub never to be seen again, the cause for his disappearance wasn’t easy to determine. The clues left behind — like an abandoned cap, a half-eaten meal, and his missing dog — stack up to sprawling speculation across the dirt road neighborhood.
Before the details of the could-be crime are unfurled, Tancred offers a strolling tour through Larrimah and its people, many of whom have no filter or fucks to give. They are interviewed in their comfort zones, backyards and cozy trailers, where several crack open beers as they settle into their stories. The quirkiness and casual drinking reminded me of one of my all-time favorite true crime documentaries, The Man Who Would Be Polka King, which begins with a narrator perched in a bar, speaking in his heavy Pennsylvanian accent to welcome tourists into the specifics of that local scandal.
By avoiding the stern studio interview setups uses in hundreds of true crime shows, Tancred sets his subjects at ease. They share as if they’re telling tales across a bar, weaving together facts and speculation with surprising references to the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and Sweeney Todd‘s man-meat-pie-making Mrs. Lovett. Tancred gamely cuts to footage of the Australian TV icon and concert footage of Angela Lansbury in the West End role, and you might well chuckle at the absurdity. Then maybe you’ll flinch, remembering that as outrageous as these theories and characters may be, a man they knew has most likely died.
Tancred doesn’t forget that or allow us to. An incredible tension is created in Last Stop Larrimah as its unfurling of the Moriarty case balances a macabre sense of entertainment with a poignant sting of loss. In this, he reflects the two wolves at war in true crime coverage, where what makes for a juicy story might be at odds with what makes for a humane one. This battle is reflected in moments like a clip from an actual news broadcast where a news reporter gleefully jokes with suspect Fran about her “Paddy pies,” ending with a laugh about how people “think you minced him!” It seems even on broadcast news there’s room to chuckle about homicide and alleged cannibalism.
Tancred understands this, um, appetite, feeding his audience the outrageous tidbits of the story as if he’s dropping breadcrumbs in a dark forest. We’re so amused by these bits about aging party animals turning against each other that we might not see what horrors are ahead.
Home movies show a Larrimah of not so long ago where the town would come together for cricket, comradery, and “a bit of a sing-song.” In modern interviews, there’s a tangible wistfulness for this idyllic era, which is reflected in B-roll footage of the town’s decay and its elderly residents, draped in wrinkles, faded tattoos, and world-weary expressions. Their fighting spirit bursts forth in the interviews, supported by cheeky cutaways to archival footage and the aforementioned pop culture bits, but Tancred also gives space for their pain and vulnerabilities. Far from exploitative, his documentary is illuminating, digging deeper than the cheeky news reports about pies and missing persons. Tancred recognizes their showmanship and charming eccentricities, but also that these are people who have experienced a jolting loss.
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He doesn’t make a game of it. Audiences are not strung along through an indecent string of cliff-hanging episodes, as they might be in a garish and vapid Netflix docuseries. Instead, in under two hours, he expertly weaves us roundabout this Outback town, its quirks, curses, and darkest chapter. Within this, Last Stop Larrimah also gives a pretty concrete answer to the question of what became of Paddy Moriarty. Then, the doc steps into what the next chapter might be for those left behind, essentially asking who any of us might be after our very worst day. Do we crumble to despair? Or is there a way to rebuild what remains of Larrimah?
In the end, documentarian Thomas Tancred does more than explore the curious case of the missing Paddy Moriarty. With Last Stop Larrimah, he offers a complex and captivating portrait of a small town that is unique but could be anywhere. He welcomes us into the circle of a gruffly enchanting community, bubbling with beer, bite, bitterness, and defiant mirth. He delicately walks the line between the lurid side of true crime and its humane potential, creating a documentary that is in turns joyful, devastating, and profound.
Last Stop Larrimah was reviewed out of its World Premiere at SXSW. It will be distributed by HBO.