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Border

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/25/18 11:49:16

"Strange and terrific."
5 stars (Awesome)

Based upon a short story from the writer of "Let the Right One In" and adapted by the filmmakers behind "Shelley", "Border" certainly has the pedigree to be fine art-house horror, though that's no guarantee - hitting the right balance of myth and metaphor is tricky business. Happily, this one is genuinely peculiar from the start and reveals more intriguing, resonant depths even as it builds its mythology in detail.

It introduces the audience to Tina (Eva Melander), who is not exactly the most welcoming face to be greeted with upon arrival in Sweden, but the local border guards keep her up front for a reason: She's got an uncanny ability to identify smugglers and those trying to evade customs, able to smell the shame and fear on them - most recently, finding a memory card full of child pornography that has the head of a task force (Ann Petrén) eager to have her help find the source. She's never wrong, at least until Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes by her post, sharing the same sort of features as Tina and setting off her radar in a way that her housemate and presumed boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) does not. It raises a lot of questions that her father (Sten Ljunggren) has long avoided answering.

Though Border impresses in a lot of ways, the way it immerses the audience in its supernatural world by emphasizing details that are human and even almost mundane is key. That balance is established right away, as director Ali Abbasi takes something as familiar as customs and lets Tina be an odd part of it - lots of zooms to her lumpy face and frantic sniffing - and it not only grounds the fantasy in something real, but it establishes something important in how integrated and unquestioned Tina's abilities are; that may be in the background, but it's a crucial part of Tina's part of the story. Abbasi's approach lets him stretch and push the edge a little further, so that the audience is ready when the moments of horror and wonder come.

It's also got a couple of great performances underneath a lot of makeup. Eva Melander gives Tina incredible humanity despite her most memorable moments often being animalistic, never shrinking from the complicated emotions that come as Tina wrestles with her place in the world now that she's starting to learn a bit more about it, and does so by matching primal emotions to caution and a lingering tendency to compromise. Meanwhile, Eero Milonoff adds genuine seductiveness to what could seem like a simple natural match, letting the audience see that there's a bit of deliberate effort to his chemistry. He seems to enjoy knowing more than Tina and sharing it with her, although it's soon clear that this knowledge has him twisted, and that his well-earned resentment is a little too close to his core

The story lets them fiddle with gender roles a bit, although mostly by not necessarily subverting them as much as one would expect - an early opportunity to get tongue-tied about anatomy versus gender identity instead gets shrugged off, treated as something to be accounted for but not obsessed over, though it leads to one of the most unusual sex scenes in recent memory, played not for titillation but urgency and release. Still, it's in many ways crucial that Abbasi plays it as kind of ordinary and with a careful relationship to the rest of the plot, as many films have a hard time balancing the ideas that people should have the sex and partners they want and that this sort of intimacy can leave a person hurt. Border is about queerness more than anything else, although there's also a lot in there as well as ethnic cleansing, and it's awful impressive that this isn't too big a load or oppressive (of course, those who would exterminate different ethnicities throughout history have often had it out for the LBGTQ as well).

All of that is going on alongside a number of more conventional mystery plots, and the way that they are tied together is fine elevated genre craftsmanship - there's no stopping to pound the metaphor home, or any feeling that solving a case also solves the larger problems; quite the opposite. There's remarkably little waste in this quick film, as stories merge and buttress each other in efficient but not forced fashion. The filmmakers crank up the psychological horror alongside the fantasy, never letting one too far away from the other but also not linking them too strongly. Each half of this movie could happen without the other, but doesn't, because people and creatures can be awful.

"Border" is suspenseful, thoughtful and always has its eyes on the ball. It's certainly good enough that I look forward to revisiting it should it get a regular release in the hope that a larger audience has an appetite for this sort of ambitious, intelligent, and genuinely thrilling horror movie.

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