On animal instincts, primal needs, unwitting assimilation, and Border's celebration of differences
Director: Ali Abbasi
Screenplay: Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on the story story Gräns, by Lindqvist
Starring: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Sten Ljunggren, Ann Petrén, Rakel Wärmländer and Tomas Åhnstrand
Rated R / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
When a movie chooses, as its subject, fantastical beings living amidst, or on the outskirts of, human society, standard operating procedure is to make them as "relatable" as possible. To emphasize the similar and the familiar. They're just like us. Special, yes. Perhaps with extraordinary abilities or unique customs. But normal all the same. We are urged to see them as analogous to ourselves.
Ali Abbasi's Border elegantly rejects that paradigm. Here, in this modest seaside town on the Swedish border, there be trolls. Two that we know of, and one that we know in particular - Tina (Eva Melander), a customs agent at a ferry terminal who's remarkably good at her job for reasons we'll get to later. But Abbasi - along with his co-writers Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist - accentuates not what is recognizably ordinary about her but specifically what is different. Even if - especially if - those differences are mysterious, strange, off-putting. We are asked to accept, and embrace, Tina because of, not in spite of, each and every characteristic that separates her from the human society that has tacitly cast her to the side. These are the film's terms.
And so Border gets us comfortable with Tina's prehistoric-like features. And the feral way she uses her nose to perform her security duties at work, a preternatural ability to literally sniff out sin, guilt and malfeasance - from relative trivialities like contraband to more illicit materials and heinous crimes - like a more primitive cousin to Unbreakable's David Dunn. And when a mysterious traveler shows up bearing a disarming physical resemblance to Tina, we get acclimated to even more unexpected - and in some cases, unpalatable - details. Turns out those maggots he's carrying around in his travel case aren't for "research," as he insists. And that's not the last we'll learn about his particular appetites.
Not that he cares what anyone thinks. His name is Vore (Eero Milonoff), and it's clear from the moment he appears on screen that he knows exactly who he is - and, we correctly intuit, in a very real sense knows more about who Tina is than she knows about herself. His gait his cocky and menacing, simultaneously defiant and defensive. He has a leering sneer that seems to cut right through Tina's long-cultivated sense of resigned calm. He is an overtly sexual figure right away; he confuses her instincts and singlehandedly shifts the film's tone.
There are other ways the two characters' bodies are distinguished from our own, and we get up close and personal with those differences, too. One scene in particular is among the most memorable sex scenes in recent memory.
Vore's presence is both intrusion and salvation. Until he showed up, Tina had been more or less accustomed - if not exactly contented - with her life as an outcast. Her appearance she always chalked up as an unexplained genetic abnormality; no one else has ever talked about it much. Her life is, for all intents and purposes, normal. Her housemate, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), is something of a leech. Tina's salary subsidizes his dog-training career, which keeps him happy but doesn't seem to bring in much money. The two share a familiar but unsettled physical comfort, which seems to become sexual only on the rarest of occasions. But now that Vore's in the picture - she decided to put him up in her small guest house - that's where her attention lies. And it's through him - and the confidence of his worldview and the self-awareness from which it sprung - that she has to come to terms with what she is. No one else was ever going to tell her. For that matter, no one else would have known what to tell her.
Border persistently forges primal, animalistic connections in its depiction of these two characters and the evolving understanding of their true nature. We get hints early on. Roland's dogs react aggressively and violently toward Tina despite being much more friendly around other people. And there's a moment of psychic clarity between our heroine and a fox from the surrounding forest, who shows up - or is drawn to - Tina's bedroom window in the middle of the night. Abbasi underlines the connection further by having Vore himself appear - in a dream - in the same position outside her window.
Between Tina and Vore, their physical attraction manifests in similarly primal fashion; they instinctively lean toward each other head- (and snout-)first, their scents and pheromones doing the work of courtship. (Then again, Vore also offers his share of pseudo-romantic come-ons, so he's lifted a thing or two from traditional human etiquette as well.) Whether Vore is a benevolent troll or a big bad wolf in disguise is a question for another time. The messy truths of human behavior - with which Tina has all too much personal experience - certainly help his case. He has very little use for human society. And human society only seems to have use for Tina as it pertains to her ability to help clean up their problems. (One of her most recent detections at the port has led her into the middle of a larger, nastier criminal investigation.)
Abbasi and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen allow their locations to inform their color palette, the overcast skies, moist air and woodland surroundings providing the film's earthy hues. It's lush but muted. There's a restrained sense of realism to it - matched by the handheld camerawork - and so the narrative's fairy-tale epiphanies cut through the film's atmosphere like anomalous lightning bolts.
For a film so inherently unpredictable, Border suffers some as it moves along, settling into predictable narrative beats that make it resemble similarly themed narratives too closely. But for all its merits, the film itself doesn't entirely know how to distinguish itself as a story. It's a bit too willing to fit in.
Still, there's a lot to be said for the beauty of the film's images and attitudes. The movie's empathetic treatment of its troll protagonist refuses to be tied to any rigid similarity to humankind. Respect for, and survival of, one is not tied to the other. Tina's been assimilating her entire life without even knowing exactly how, or why. Border feels no need to keep her constrained by human standards any longer.