AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Sweden, Tina lives a fairly isolated life in a secluded house in the woods with dog trainer Roland, but despite having deformed, almost animal-like features, she’s admired by her bosses and coworkers in her job as a customs agent at the airport. This is because she’s literally able to “smell” human emotions, especially guilt and fear, something that’s very handy when people are trying to smuggle various items into the country. One day at the border, Tina manages to uncover a memory card full of child pornography, and finds herself helping the police in investigating it. The next day, a man named Vore with a similar facial structure to Tina is found with loads of maggots and a maggot incubator on him. An attraction begins to develop between the two….
I’m usually a little late in posting my top thirty films of the year. This is primarily because I feel it’s right to try to see as many films as possible before I decide on what belongs on the list, and there are always quite a few films that I miss when they’re at the cinema, something that can be put chiefly down to two things; there’s never enough time if you also want to have a social life, and I life in a crap town that has two multiplexes that both show the same films with very little on the arty side. It’s nice catching up with good stuff that previously passed me by, though I rarely have time to do any reviews of these films. However, I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my bottom ten films of the year article, and really fancied a break from writing about the crud of the year, especially one particular film that I truly hated and which still winds me up as soon as it comes into my mind, so I decided to review Border, made in 2018 but only properly released in 2019, as soon as I’d watched it. It was sure to be good after all and even sounded fairly original. Written from his own short story of the same title [or Gräns in Swedish] by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who put a fresh twist on the idea of vampires with his twice filmed novel Let The Right One In and apparently also zombies with his sequel Handling The Undead, it presents another fantastical creature that’s an even more important part of Scandinavian folklore – the troll. It takes as its starting point the question, “what if trolls were alive today?“, then uses it to tackle ideas of ‘them and us’, the cruelty of Western civilisation, and the difficulties of trying to choose one’s own identity – while incorporating Nordic noir, romance, body horror, and – well, what the hell genre is this really?
This probably all sounds very heavy, and indeed it is, lacking in lightness and laughs unless you have a particularly dark sense of humour [if you see the film you’ll know what I mean by that comment when you get to the odd scene], and with a very slow pace for its first half, though those familiar with Scandinavian crime dramas won’t find these things to be a problem, along with some rather moral ambiguity that some may find to be very uncomfortable indeed but which I feel gave some weight to the thematic aspects which if you think about it are quite commonly explored in today’s cinema, including even the most “commercial” kind if usually just allegorically. Of course the film’s title immediately causes you to think of certain things going on right now in the UK and other countries that I probably don’t even need to mention. One thing’s for sure though – I can’t see Hollywood wanting to remake this story any time soon, at least until one particular plot ingredient was removed or drastically toned down. I’ll warn you now: part of the story deals with the multiple raping of babies, and, while it’s thankfully never shown, it’s referenced quite a lot. I did wonder several times throughout the film if this was necessary and if Lindqvist [who added this element to his short story maybe as a response to both movie versions of Let The Right One omitting a subplot involving child abuse that was present in the novel] couldn’t have had another type of nasty crime being investigated. But as the tale drew to its conclusion, I realised that it was very necessary indeed. For the power of some of the scenes near the end and for us to have absorbed the anger of one character [I can’t be too specific otherwise I’d give too much away], we had to be presented with a crime of true abhorrence, mankind at its most vile.
We first meet Tina standing by a lake, before picking up an insect and putting it on a tree branch. This lake is actually right beside her place of work, but the scene is the first of a series of moments that relate Tina more and more to the natural world, as she takes walks in the forest and communes with its denizens, perhaps reaching their peak in a nocturnal scene, oozing wonder yet also – oddly – calm, where, while in bed, Tina has a fox visiting her. Does it want to communicate? Or is a kind of messenger? Tina is understandably self conscious because of her appearance, and her being described as “ugly” by someone who probably knows that she can hear him is probably nothing compared to what she’s had to endure in the past. She has a man called Roland, a dog trainer, living in her house though she wants things kept platonic, and gets on well with her neighbours Ulf and Theresa who are expecting. She also has a father who she periodically visits in a nursing home, and who tells her that the scar she has on her tailbone is due to her falling on something as a small child. We don’t believe him, but we do believe that Tina is appreciated in the work place because she’s able to sniff out seemingly any contraband, however well hidden. She finds some photos of a most disgusting kind in a phone, and is enlisted to help track down some paedophiles and even say whether they’re lying or not, though would she really be allowed to be present at interrogations? Then the similar looking Vore walks through customs twice, the second time resulting in a strip search which reveals that he actually has female genitalia – plus – yes – a large scar on his tailbone. Vore doesn’t seem to have a fixed abode, so Tina lets him stay in her house.
Some things progress as expected, but you probably haven’t seen a sex scene like the one here [its closest cousin is probably the one in The Howling]. It’s strange and I reckon that some viewers who’ve had a bit to drink may find it rather amusing, but it’s also brave, plus a further reminder, if one were still needed, of how absurdly coy cinema in general tends to be about sex today, despite more violence then ever before being shown. And one can only admire stars Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff for giving it their all. Both are magnificent throughout the whole film, totally refusing to condescend to roles that requires them to spend much of their time sniffing each other, and never allowing the extensive prosthetics to prevent real emotion coming through. I even admired the [admittedly perhaps unnecessary] scene where they run through the woods naked, because how often do you see ugly or even average-looking people naked in movies, at least in the West? Of course Tina and Vore aren’t human – they’re trolls, lightning-fearing creatures who’ve been treated abominably by mankind and almost made extinct. Tina soon starts to become more like Vore, who appeared confident and even proud of who he was right from when we first saw him. I loved a scene at a buffet, where he takes all the smoked salmon and then hungrily eats it with little concern for social etiquette. But why has Vore taped the fridge shut? I won’t say, but it introduces something into the story that may ‘weird’ a few viewers out, though I’d imagine that most readers of a website named Horror Cult Films will have seen something like this done a couple of times before in movies. The hatching of a dastardly plan results in an unsettling jolt, while a twist surprised me though in retrospect is probably the only way the story could really have gone.
Things end up hinging on issues of morality and choice. Is what makes us human also shared by trolls? How easy is it for mistreated outsiders to become what many assume they already are? What’s the best way to deal with oppression – violence or peace [the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King conundrum]? Tina is told some most upsetting things near the end and I’d imagine that many viewers would be like me and want Tina to rip apart the person she’s talking with, because by now it’s impossible not to sympathise with the trolls, creatures who are obviously intended to remind us all those indigenous cultures who’ve been swallowed up by the West and lost their identity. But Tina doesn’t go through with it, even though we know that Vore certainly would have if he was present. More puzzling is the final scene which on the surface seems to be happy but which if you think about it actually shows Tina’s life suddenly being made really difficult again – though this lover of downbeat endings probably shouldn’t complain. And [I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, I whinge about it more than ‘shakycam’ these days] why do have yet another film where one sex [and you know which one] is shown in a far better light than the other? If it was the other way round there would be riots by now.
The forest is rendered with rich, vibrant colours and a fluid camera that’s quite different to the way that the steel and concrete world which Tina spends most of her time is presented, evoked in washed out blues, greens and greys, with a camera that’s mostly static. Interestingly but appropriately, the country house that Tina owns exists between the other two extremes in visual presentation and the way that it’s shot. While this certainly isn’t one of those films that stylistically draws attention to itself outside of maybe a couple of moments, it’s obviously been very carefully thought through by director Ali Abbasi and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen in this respect. While I tend to often notice this kind of thing because [sometimes unfortunately] the act of reviewing lots of films has led to me watching films in a slightly different way, I feel that the colour, set, photographic, even sound, design aspects of this movie would work on many viewers in a subconscious way too. Overall Abbasi is done something quite unique here. He’s combined the gritty and the very ‘out there’ and somehow made it work. There were times where, as in the case with many movies these days, he, Lindqvist and the other screenwriter Isaeblla Eklof were a bit too full-on with the messaging and the commentary for my taste. But that’s just me, and at least it seemed that they truly believed in what they were saying unlike the cynical, corporate preachery of much of Hollywood’s current output. And it’s really the border between right and wrong which becomes the one of most importance in the end anyway. Borders is a heartfelt, intelligent and brave piece that may just have to fit into that top thirty which I’m beginning to put together.