(reviewed at the Singapore International Film Festival)
Synopsis – Tina, a Swedish border agent (Eva Melander) with a gift for literally sniffing out wrongdoing meets a strange man named Vore (Eero Milonoff) to whom she is inextricably drawn to.
Author’s note – I’m going to be intentionally vague about discussing this film, because so much of what makes it good are the unexpected directions it takes. Being overly specific on these directions would probably sap it of a great deal of its power.
1. Border is weird. Once more for the cheap seats in the back. Border is really weird. Existing at the border (pun!) of crime drama and magical realism, Ali Abbasi’s film resembles nothing I’ve seen in quite a while. Adapted from a short story by John Ajdvide Linqvist, who wrote the source material for Let The Right One In, Border has several similarities to that other work – a creeping sense of oppressive dread, the uncanny mix of low fantasy and kitchen-sink realism, and questions about the morality of violence and revenge. I would hesitate to say that I liked Border, but I certainly admired it for its willingness to go for broke (sometimes a little too far) and tell a gripping, unique narrative.
2. Like all good magical realism, Border begins by forcing the audience to question the limits of reality. How is Tina so good at sussing out who is carrying contraband? Can she actually communicate with animals? And [Mr. Plinkett voice] what’s wrong with her face?
The latter is one of the smartest moves that Abbasi and his art direction team make in Border, putting just enough prosthetics on actors Melander and Thorsson to beg the question as to whether they are merely ugly or if there is more to it than that. Kudos must also be given to the decision to lean into the grotesque and ugly. So many fantasy films prettify their characters (compare the description of book Hermione in the Harry Potter series to Emma Watson, who literally just played a character named ‘Beauty’) and even their monsters (Twilight, Underworld, Anne Rice), that it is refreshing to see a film that doesn’t just make its characters ugly, but even turns that ugliness into a plot point.
3. Said ugliness also serves as a test for the viewer as well. Ebert famously called movies ‘empathy machines’, and Border experiments with that theory to its limit. In a visual medium like film, it’s actually easy enough to engender empathy for psychopaths like Patrick Bateman or Tyler Durden, because they look so cool. This goes a long way as well to explain the cults of personality that have sprung up around them and ignored the essential themes of the films they are in. Border, in contrast to these other films, toys with the concept of whether it is possible for the viewer to build empathy for characters that are resolutely uncool and inhuman in the least attractive of ways.* The fact that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ speaks to Abbasi’s direction, the screenplay (credited to Abbasi, Isabella Eklof, and Linqvist), Melander’s tender, soulful performance, and the consistent power of narrative film.
4. Behind the weirdness is a compelling moral question on the justification of revenge. If a great wrong has been perpetrated by one group to another, is it reasonable (or even ethical) for the oppressed group to even the score? This question is at the heart of Border, and it is a question that has great significance in the world today. Tina’s plight could stand in for a number of injustices taking place right now – be it gender, racial, religious, or political oppression, and while the film makes it very clear which side it comes down on, it does not shy away from the fact that the other side of the argument can be deeply persuasive.
5. On the whole, Border comes recommended because of its unique sensibility, its daring, and its formal expertise. I would not call it a perfect movie, especially considering that certain points feel like they cross the line into unnecessary provocation for its own sake. However, these moments are rare, and Border stands as a clever and compelling film with a great deal to say, and is well worth a watch if you can get your hands on it.
* I swore I wasn’t going to say the word ‘Lynchian’ as it is i. lazy shorthand and ii. not that great a descriptor either, considering that Lynch operates on dream logic and Border plays its fantastical elements in as grounded a way as possible. However, I can’t not add at this point that Abbasi’s ability to create empathy for grotesque outsiders is very (sigh) Lynchian.