Film

Review: A Search for Purpose, Belonging in Genre-Bending Border

From the opening frames of Border, the second feature from Iranian-born, Danish-dwelling filmmaker Ali Abbasi (Shelley), we know something isn’t quite normal. Set in Sweden, the film is part human drama, part fantastical lore about a customs officer who has the uncanny ability to sense when a potential smuggler crosses her path, a sense that is somehow tied to her unusually broad nose’s ability to detect smell.

Border

Image courtesy of Neon

All of her life, Tina (Eva Melander) has been made fun of and bullied because of her less-than-flattering looks. She has a painful-looking overbite, stained teeth, a protruding brow, blotchy skin, and a noticeably high volume of body hair. When someone she catches smuggling alcohol at the border calls her “ugly,” she doesn’t even flinch, let alone get offended. This tells us all we need to know about her life up to that point…or so we think.

Tina has a live-in boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), but he seems to be taking advantage of her need for companionship by living for free in her modest home and using it as a base of operations for training show dogs. After spending a bit of time examining her public life, we get a peak into Tina’s private world, where she walks barefoot through the foggy woods surrounding her home, occasionally interacting with wildlife like a friendly fox or moose (most of the forest creatures just wander right up to her without a fear in the world). She even skinny dips in the nearby lake, in something of cleansing ritual more than a casual swim. Tina is in tune with her surroundings in a way she’s probably not aware of, but nature seems to be the only place where she doesn’t feel judged.

Outside of work and what passes for a home life, Tina’s routine also includes regular visits to her aging father (Sten Ljunggren) in his assisted-living facility. He is clearly beginning to have memory issues, which he sometimes exploits to avoid having to answer some of Tina’s more probing questions about her past.

It may come as no surprise that this blend of the supernatural and troubling reality is based on a short story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel Let The Right One In is one of the greatest vampire stories ever told. The true nature of the story occurs when, on the job, Tina meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), whose features bear a striking resemblance to hers (right down to her unflattering hairstyle), so much so that we begin to suspect that they might be related. Without wanting to reveal what their true connection is, I can disclose that Border dives headfirst into the world of Nordic mythology, while also being a social criticism of the humankind’s many flaws, all which comes to light after Tina allows Vore to rent out her guest house and the two start spending a great deal of time together.

Needless to say, the connection between Tina and Vore deepens in a series of visually swirling moments that end up revealing a great deal about Tina’s identity and the full potential of her physical form (much like Let the Right One In, questions of gender are both present and nebulous, in ways that only heighten the story’s fantastical elements). And by the time the movie turns into a full-blown romance, it also reveals itself to be something of a horror story. This absolute refusal to adhere to a single genre (choosing, instead, to subvert all genres) is one of the most impressive and intriguing things about Border, which made quite a splash when it debuted earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. As if to show audiences how many different types of films it could be, Border even turns into a police procedural when local law enforcement recruit Tina (and her nose for crime) to help them break up a child pornography ring, which may seem random and unrelated to the rest of the plot, but it is soon revealed to be anything but.

Border also deals with issues of identity, the self-destructive way in which humanity consumes the best of itself, and how being crushingly lonely can make one blind to a great threat right in front of them. Accentuated by a haunting score by Christian Holm and some genuinely impressive make-up effects, Abbasi’s work (which he adapted with Lindqvist and Isabella Eklöf) fluidly moves from hypnotic and etherial to shocking and sickening. And like many of the best horror films in recent years, it takes time to examine and explore its lead characters to such a degree that we feel fully invested in their lives and fates. I know it sounds crazy, but when you actually feel like you know the characters, then it matters to you whether they live or die.

And after spending the entire film emotionally thrashing its audience, Border commits the ultimate act of boldness in its final moments by giving us hope for Tina’s future well-being. In many ways, it’s the perfect genre film (especially for those looking for something especially unique around Halloween) in its refusal to conform to any familiar tropes, instead opting to dip its misshapen form into several cinematic molds, only to shatter them as its lead character continues her search for purpose and belonging.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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