Photo: NEON

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes Border. A thematically rich and deeply strange blend of romantic drama, magical-realist fantasy, and crime thriller, Sweden’s official entry to this year’s Academy Awards splits the difference between the highbrow cringe comedy of Toni Erdmann and the lowbrow cop fantasy Bright. The tone is more consistent with the former, or perhaps the banal surrealism of Quentin Dupieux’s 2012 film, Wrong. The world-building undeniably evokes the latter, albeit a much better-written and more thoughtfully executed version. The title of Border not only refers to the literal checkpoint where the story begins, but also the boundaries between human and inhuman, right and wrong, and duty and desire.

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The script comes from John Ajvide Lindqvist, who brought a similar sense of tragic romance to the vampire tale Let The Right One In (2008); Isabella Eklöf, whose debut feature, Holiday (2018), is similarly unflinching in its themes; and Ali Abbasi, who wrote and directed the similarly understated pregnancy horror film Shelley in 2016. Abbasi, who also directs, keeps the tone steady and muted throughout the shifting genres, allowing the writing to shine. There’s a sense of genuine surprise to be found in the unfolding of its plot—stop reading at the end of this paragraph if you want to go in fresh—and unexpected layers to the dilemma faced by our protagonist.

Eva Melander stars under heavy prosthetic makeup as Tina, a customs agent at an unnamed Swedish border crossing who has a seemingly supernatural ability to “sniff out” contraband and a perfect record of apprehending smugglers. She also has a genetic condition that gives her an unusual, heavy-browed appearance. Despite this, she lives a relatively normal life: She’s well-respected at work and lives in a house inherited from her father with her dog-breeder boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), albeit with separate bedrooms. Tina’s facial abnormality remains un-commented upon for the first half-hour or so of the film, a deadpan transgression of cinematic norms that builds a squirming discomfort in the audience—How does no one notice? Am I not supposed to notice?—by making us feel guilty for fixating on her looks in the first place.

Photo: NEON

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This poker-faced approach also brings an alarming rush to our first glimpse of Vore (Eero Milonoff, also in prosthetic makeup), a man with the same rare condition as Tina. Vore passes through Tina’s checkpoint one day in a scene reminiscent of latter-period David Lynch; it’s not clear at first if he’s an interdimensional twin, a hallucination, or a real human being. To Tina’s astonishment, he appears to be the latter. Could she have gotten so lucky, to find the one person on Earth who understands what she’s been through? Yes and no.

The tension between Vore and Tina is undeniable, and eventually explodes into a passionate affair when he comes to stay in her guest house. “There’s no flaw in you,” Vore tells Tina as she confides in him that she’s always been ashamed of being “ugly.” “If there is something different, it is because you are better.” Then he makes a shattering claim: He and Tina are not human. They’re part of an ancient and endangered species of trolls, and are not bound by the laws of humanity. Torn between the blissful kismet of finally finding another like her and the life she’s built for herself—she’s recently been promoted at work, and is assisting in a shocking investigation into a child pornography ring—Tina has to make a choice.

Border occasionally tiptoes up to the boundaries of good taste, particularly in its sex scenes, and the leads’ performances are as nuanced as they can be under layers of latex. Luckily, the screenplay is thought-provoking enough to carry the story through to its end. The craft is also top notch: The spaces between the dialogue crackle with tension, the visual effects and makeup are realistic and convincing, and Abbasi offers subtle commentary by contrasting the buzzing fluorescent lights and sickly colors of the human world with the soft, gentle light and natural tones of the woods, the only place where Tina feels truly comfortable.

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In less empathetic hands, Border could have easily become a Greasy Strangler-style freak show, or collapse under the quirkiness of its premise. Instead, it’s something strange, wild, and oddly beautiful—a testament to the sensitivity, and talent, of its creators.