‘Last Stop Larrimah’ Review: A Flavorful Australian Outback Mystery Fueled by Infighting in a One-Horse Town

‘Last Stop Larrimah’ Review: A Flavorful Australian Outback Mystery Fueled by Infighting in a One-Horse Town
Mar 2023

The HBO doc, executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, investigates the unsolved disappearance of a local resident in a tiny Northern Territory outpost with a population of 11.

In Australian vernacular, a larrikin is a mischievous prankster, a loud, uncultured, badly behaved young person given to flouting convention. At 70, Paddy Moriarty hardly qualified as young, but in every other way he epitomized that national archetype, merrily stoking friction among residents of the Podunk town that gives Last Stop Larrimah its title. Even Paddy's kelpie was a troublemaker. The disappearance of both man and mutt in December 2017 from the middle-of-nowhere Northern Territory burg, population 11, put Larrimah in the news cycle as investigative teams descended and discovered a tiny community rife with infighting.

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American director Thomas Tancred makes his feature debut with this playful anatomy of a township scarcely big enough to be called that; of the unpolished eccentrics who live there; and the shadow that remains over Larrimah with the cold case of Irish emigre Moriarty. The film's subtitle is An Outback Tale in 5 Chapters, which implies a tighter, more orderly structure than Tancred and his team of editors have given the somewhat rambling, at times repetitious two hours. But the singular milieu and its colorful inhabitants make for a unique true-crime study.

Last Stop Larrimah

The Bottom Line The making of a back-of-beyond legend.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Thomas Tancred
1 hour 57 minutes

Last Stop Larrimah

Not that the police and rescue responders who came from all over N.T., far outnumbering the locals, ever established hard evidence of a crime, despite scouring the surrounding bushland on horseback and quad bikes, in helicopters and on foot with teams of sniffer dogs. But the disappearance of Moriarty, last seen wobbling his way home from the Larrimah pub with a skinful of beer, has a whiff of foul play to rival any Agatha Christie whodunnit and a cast of characters whose grudges, feuds or even just passing run-ins reveal a solid handful of potential suspects.

Among the more lurid theories bandied about with wild speculation is that the pub owner at the time, Barry Sharpe, bashed Paddy over the head in a moment of anger, inadvertently killing him, and then chopped him up and fed him to his pet crocodile. Another school of thought suggests that tea house owner Fran Hodgetts -- and tea house makes the shoddy operation sound much grander than it was -- took a leaf out of Mrs. Lovett's book in Sweeney Todd and turned Paddy into filling for her famous meat pies. The fact that Paddy took great delight in antagonizing Fran for years, making it known that even his dog wouldn't eat her pies, might have caused imaginations to run riot.

Suspicion landed also on Fran's gardener, Owen Laurie, a taciturn "bushie," or longtime Outback dweller, who in his younger years had traveled the boxing tent circuit as a bare-knuckle fighter. The animosity between Owen and Paddy extended to snarling faceoffs between their dogs, but despite what seems compelling evidence, no arrest was made. Laurie is the sole person of interest who declined to speak with the filmmakers; his lawyer's responses are strictly "no comment."

Other locals getting in on the raised eyebrows, finger-pointing and speculation include pub bartender Richard Simpson, an irascible type known to clash with townsfolk; and Karl and Bobbie Roth, hard-bitten rivals to Barry for leadership of Larrimah. That put them at odds with Paddy, whose daily ritual of holding court at the pub made him automatically a Barry loyalist.

It's especially through old-timers like Cookie, Lenny and Fran's ex-husband Billy -- who lives in a caravan alongside her property, "just to piss her off" -- that a picture of who Paddy was emerges.

He traveled to Australia at 19 in the mid-1960s on an immigration ship from Ireland (fun fact: that vessel was later converted to a cruise liner on which my family and I spent a couple Christmas holidays sailing to the Pacific Islands) and bummed around the Northern Territory as a whip-cracking cattleman for the next half a century. Disreputable behavior got him banned from the pub and then run out of town at his last home prior to Larrimah. Like many of the residents there, he stopped in for a beer at the remote spot on the Stuart Highway and never left. Some locals describe him as a happy-go-lucky bloke with an infectious laugh, liked by everyone; others say everyone hated him.

Presumably a Bonanza fan, Paddy nicknamed his house in Larrimah the Ponderosa Ranch. The fact that his keys, wallet and the cowboy hat he was never seen without were found there led investigators to conclude that he arrived home from the pub the night of Dec 16. But for some reason, he was compelled to step outside and met his maker.

Alongside the mystery of Paddy's disappearance, Tancred weaves in rudimentary details of Larrimah's history. The locality had its heyday during World War II as an army transportation route junction, but when fuel tanks with larger capacities came along, its importance as a road stop declined.

The doc makes the implicit point that it takes a certain type of rough-and-ready character to choose to live today in an off-the-grid place with no cellphone reception, the nearest police station almost 50 miles away and the nearest major shopping and supply destination requiring a two-hour drive each way. But while more than one interviewee speculates that the Paddy saga would finally wipe the town off the map, details revealed in the concluding chapter testify to its resilience.

Punctuating the story with pretty pink Outback sunsets, Tancred at times seems a bit too beguiled -- perhaps even condescendingly so -- by the unsophisticated charms of the locals to tell the tale with maximum clarity or momentum. The film can't compare to the depth and detail of national broadsheet The Australian's 2018 crime podcast episode, Lost in Larrimah. The director also gets a little cute with some of his music choices, troweling on vintage Lee Hazlewood tracks to establish the setting as a lawless outpost, a Down-Under Old West.

Ultimately, the film's divided attention between its snapshot of a place stuck in time and its examination of the unsolved case that came to redefine it stops Last Stop Larrimah from being a first-rate true-crime doc. But there's nonetheless a lot of flavorful material here. By the time Peter Allen's nasal vocals pipe up over the closing moments on the sappy anthem every Australian loves to hate, "I Still Call Australia Home," you might find yourself feeling an attachment to the folks of Larrimah while still pondering which one of them offed Paddy Moriarty.