It is difficult to describe the experience of watching Ali Abbasi's Border other than to state, with zero hesitation, that this most extraordinary and unique film is one of the most mesmerizingly beautiful films of 2018 and will most assuredly be one of the most unique viewing experiences you will have in what has been a rather exceptional year for challenging, remarkable cinema.
The Swedish entry into the 2019 Academy Awards, Border is based on a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who has also contributed to the film's rather stunning and impossible to imagine screenplay.
Border is a fable, yet it's a fable that dances around a variety of genres with equal ease. We're talking black comedy, surrealism, romance, crime drama, horror, fantasy and others.
Border wants to be everything and, almost unfathomably, it succeeds.
Border is messy, but Border is never a mess. Border is somehow both cynical and hopeful, embracing of stark humanity and, well, troll folklore.
Yes, read that again.
The film stars Eva Melander as Tina, a customs officer with a rather unusual yet rewarding gift - a sense of smell that can take seemingly ordinary folks and discover their deepest and darkest secrets ranging from alcohol smuggling to child pornography. It's the latter, child porn, that serves as the impetus for the story that unfolds in Border, though the film itself has very little to do with the actual subject.
Melander's Tina is seemingly an unusual beast of a woman, her almost cave-woman type physique accentuated by excessively furry brows, a snaggle-toothed overbite, and puffy cheeks that are likely out-puffed by her awkward, arching physical presence. She is lonely and it's the kind of loneliness that radiates from every cell of her being, her only outside work human connection coming from her roommate, almost kind of boyfriend named Roland (Sten Ljunggren), a freeloader who's unquestionably using Tina for a place to live and a place to breed his beloved pit bulls.
Melander's performance as Tina here is easily one of the best performances of 2018, her internal ache externally devastating despite the challenges posed by acting beneath heavy, yet convincing prosthetics. Melander gives a master class in facial expressions, her twitchy nose never betraying her or justice and her wounded eyes seemingly in an endless search for some sort of connection that never seems to arrive.
Until she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), an equal outcast whom Tina initially pegs as hiding something when he arrives in her customs line. He is hiding something, of course, but it's not what Tina expects and the two begin this remarkable dance of intrigue and wonder grounded in an awareness that there's something familiar about one another.
Deep down, Tina and Vore know that they are in some weird way one and the same. Vore knows that Tina belongs in the world that he knows, a troll world she never knew existed but it seemingly knew that she existed. It's a place she knows she belongs, yet that knowledge doesn't come easy and it doesn't come without a price.
It's difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe just how perfectly Abbasi balances the film's essential ingredients of fantasy and wonder along with remarkable, increasingly dark psychological and body horror. The same is true for the balance between the two key characters of Tina and Vore. Vore is more primitive, confident and celebrating in his beastliness and willing to live into everything that it means, while Tina, despite her socially isolating appearance, has lived much of her life at least somewhat within a real world with real human expectations that Vore simply cannot understand.
To say that Border is about borders feels overly obvious and certainly overly simplistic, yet Border is precisely about the borders we encounter and whether we honor them or betray them, transcend them or immerse ourselves in them. There are no easy answers and Border doesn't attempt to offer any easy answers.
Border is most certainly not a film for everyone, its remarkable storytelling requiring tremendous psychological and cinematic leaps while the film's eventual bathing delicately in gore seemingly at conflict with its ultimately life-affirming, love embracing storyline and rather stunningly, and richly authentic, spiritual storylines that walk across the screen like a Wallenda.
For those willing to immerse themselves, and I mean absolute surrender, Border is without question one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of 2018 and a film that you absolutely, unequivocally will not forget about in the near future.
It seems like every single year there's a film that comes along out of nowhere and completely blows me away. This year, that film is Border and that film is completely and utterly magnificent.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic