Strange, unique, and almost unclassifiable into any specific genre, Swedish director Ali Abbasi’s Border boasts some of the most peculiar storytelling in any film this year. Adapted from a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist (who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf), Border starts off as a beguiling and mysterious character piece built around a societal outcast before becoming something far more standard and ultimately less satisfying. Still, there’s nothing else that one could hope to use as a perfect comparison for the weirdness of Border, and the material’s overall ingenuity carries Abbasi’s second feature a long way.
Shy, quiet, and inhospitable looking Tina (Eva Melander) works at a seaport border crossing. With a puffy face, snaggletoothed overbite, and perpetually stoic expression, Tina isn’t exactly a warm presence. Her profession makes great use of her unique ability to smell human emotion. She can tell immediately by scent if someone is fearful, riddled with guilt or shame, or lying, going as far as being able to suss out illicit materials on one passenger’s cell phone from that one sense alone.
One day, Vore (Eero Milonoff), a mysterious and mischievous traveller with a similar facial structure comes through her checkpoint. The sudden materialization of someone who looks just like her intrigues and scares Tina. She tracks Vore down, thinking the traveller might hold the answers to nagging questions she has about her life and upbringing. There are a lot of similarities between Tina and Vore beyond their facial structures. Both boast a similarly keen sense of smell, a great deal of animals seem to distrust them, they have similar scars, and lightning terrifies them equally. Tina invites Vore to ditch his hostel and come stay at the guest house located on the property she shares with her aloof, freeloading, dog loving boyfriend (Sten Ljunggren). With each revelation Tina learns about herself and her relationship to Vore – which is equally passionate and frightening – her personal and professional lives begin to intertwine.
Border isn’t quite a thriller, fantasy, mystery, melodrama, or romance. It’s a film that uses elements from all of these genres without giving into the manipulative or more crowd pleasing tropes of any of them. At the same time, Border isn’t an experimental exercise that’s weird for the sake of being weird. Abbasi’s script driven movie uses genre elements to get at the heart of the deeply humane and complicated issues inherent in Lindqvist’s material without ever staying in one setting for too long. One might expect Border to have a chaotic sense of style and abrupt pacing and tonal changes, but it’s a testament to Abbasi’s vision that the film maintains a visual and narrative sense of consistency throughout, even when the plot swerves and character deviations start coming at a fast and furious rate. Uncanny is probably the best adjective to describe Border, which is unsettling and transfixing without ever being necessarily eerie. Such material – especially once things start to escalate – could’ve been used for shock value, but Addasi has fully committed to making Tina’s world seem as normal and sinister as possible, and Border is all the better for it.
The first hour of Border, which will be representing Sweden in this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar race, is much more successful than the second, effectively fleshing out messages about gender fluidity and how it pertains to one’s abilities as a parent. Some people – like Tina – are unable to have kids of their own despite best efforts, developing a distancing undercurrent of depressive loneliness over time if they let such biological setbacks get the better of them. When Tina is approached by the police to use her sniffer in an investigation, a parallel theme about seemingly normal and traditional parents who shouldn’t be allowed to have children begins to emerge. These parallel storylines enhance and enlighten the relationships Tina has with her beau, her new best friend, and her dementia addled father (Jörgen Thorsson). The approach is strange and atypical, but by sticking to the script and its strong sense of character and place, Border becomes a surprisingly moving and thoughtful meditation on parenthood.
It’s also a strong tale of empowerment and the ability to live up to one’s full potential. Once Tina’s embraces her true and long dormant nature, Border becomes curiously inspiring. Melander’s leading performance is a great example of an actor utilizing every inch of their range, thanks in part to a script that nicely ebbs and flows. Tina starts out demure, slowly growing more confident. The more she learns, the more she begins to love herself and distrust everyone around her. Eventually, she finds her own strength, but is devastated by the cost it took to gain it. Melander’s performance and Tina’s character arc are like watching a flower bloom just before the start of winter and then watching it endure inexplicably under harsh conditions. It’s exceptionally realized by Abbasi, his co-writers, and cast.
Paradoxically, it’s the revelation of Tina’s hidden nature that provides Border with it’s first major stumbling point en route to an admittedly lumbering conclusion. After that key detail is introduced into the story, Abbasi jettisons the slow burning character beats and proceeds to rattle off all of the story’s remaining twists and intersections across twenty breakneck minutes. Suddenly, Border starts leaking all of its previously nuanced material all over the place, and while it’s all still interesting, none of it is sticking as well as it probably should. Once the ambiguity has been drained from Border, Abbasi starts racing to wrap everything up as neatly as possible, often threatening to turn the film into something akin to a superhero origin story in the process (or at least something in line with M. Night Shyamalan’s post-Unbreakable, pre-The Happening years).
It’s both disappointing and admirable that everything about Border adds up by its conclusion, which ultimately says everything it wants to say fifteen minutes before the movie ends. It’s not that the answers given aren’t satisfying, but that they leave the audience without much to think back on once the movie ends. The first transfixing hour of Border will stick in the minds of viewers nicely. The second hour is just a bunch of stuff that happens to bring it all home to a conclusion. That doesn’t make Border any less unique or Abbasi’s approach any less novel, but it does make for a film that isn’t quite as exceptional as it could have been. Unlike its main character, Border only lives up to some of its overwhelming potential.
Border opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Montreal on Friday, November 23, 2018. It expands to additional cities throughout the fall and winter.
Check out the trailer for Border:
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