'Border': Boldly crossing the boundaries of genre
Tina is the secret weapon of Swedish customs. She stands gateside at a rural port, eyeing travelers as they disembark from a ferry. Her upper lip quivers. “Three bottles of liquor,” she says. Her partner stops a young man, searches his bag and confiscates the contraband booze.
Another man walks through. Tina says she can smell fear and guilt on him. There’s nothing in his luggage, though. She sniffs his cell phone, pops off the case and finds a hidden computer chip, which she and other agents soon learn is full of child pornography.
The first scenario seems almost plausible. The second one, significantly less so, an indication that “Border” is difficult to define. Directed by Ali Abbasi, the film has the visual aesthetic of an independent drama -- it’s shot with handheld cameras for a sense of intimacy and realism, which are key to its power. When something extraordinary happens within a recognizable, pragmatic context, it wields significant dramatic impact.
The movie is a deliberate and methodical tease, and the more it reveals about Tina, the more difficult it is to define within typical genre classifications. She doesn’t look like everyone else -- her facial features are almost Neanderthal, with a thick, pronounced brow and a large overbite full of raggedy teeth. Eva Melander plays her with depth and nuance, even beneath a dense layer of convincing prosthetics and makeup.
Recruited by detectives to assist in the child-porn investigation, Tina explains that she can “smell people’s feelings.” The truth of her nature is the film’s central mystery, and our interest is driven by curiosity; perhaps not unexpectedly, the drama hinges on revelations about Tina’s identity and self, some of which are new even to her.
One day at the port, she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who has similar physical characteristics, but an intimidating and creepy demeanor. She searches his luggage, and finds live maggots in a jar. “Do you like insects?” he asks, acting like he already knows the answer -- and calling back to the movie’s opening scene, in which Tina picks up and examines a cricket. Vore carries himself menacingly, his presence large enough to encroach on others’ personal space just enough to make them uncomfortable. Yet Milonoff plays the character with enough complexity and nuance to make us wonder if he’s merely odd, an outsider who’s not quite keen on the norms of interpersonal communication.
Our point-of-view adheres tightly with Tina’s, who gives him the benefit of the doubt, despite some lingering reservations. She hasn’t seen anyone like herself before, and pushes aside concern for curiosity. We sense something stirring deep inside Tina when she’s with Vore -- something instinctual, primal, possibly hormonal. And he certainly seems to be deliberately stirring her primordial urges.
Tina lives in a remote house in the woods with her boyfriend, Roland (Jorgen Thorsson). His dogs aggressively bark at her when she comes home from work, and he’s frequently glued to televised horse-track gambling. It’s clearly an awkward relationship, and when frustrated, Tina goes for barefoot walks in the lush, mossy forest. In one scene, she kindly greets a fox, which doesn’t scamper off; in another, she’s met by a moose, which courts a stroke of its fur, almost like a needy cat.
Tina invites Vore to stay in the small guest house on her property, which doesn’t go over well with Roland. Vore arrives, and growls at the dogs until they whimper submissively, which obviously goes over just fine with Tina. Vore raises questions about Tina’s perception of herself and her identity; she visits her father (Sten Ljunggren) in a nursing home to ask him some difficult questions, and it’s a sad scene, because his dementia renders him untrustworthy.
I’ll stop here, because one of the joys of “Border” is its unpredictability. I will say that Tina is undeniably a good, empathetic soul beneath her peculiar exterior. But don’t jump to the conclusion that “Border” traffics in cliches about inner beauty -- it manages to address the topic while boldly challenging our sensibilities, which is my somewhat obfuscatory way of saying it sometimes can be a bewilderingly strange watch, but always an engrossing one. It’s a bizarre blend of fantastical horror and rich character drama; your eyes will widen as much as your heart will open. People are never easy to define simply, and movies about them should follow suit.
MPAA rating: R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, a bloody violent image, and language
Cast: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Sten Ljunggren
Director: Ali Abbasi
Run time: 110 minutes
In Swedish with English subtitles