By Elias Savada.
Scandinavian folklore is home to dozens of curious creatures. Trolls, dwarves, and elves might be the ones most of us on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean recall on a regular basis. It’s a natural progression that movies and television have appropriated these supernatural beings, particularly in their homelands. I suspect the likes of Vættir, Nøkken, Nisse, and Huldra are more prominent in literature than on the screen, but one of the best other worldly films from Sweden was actually based on a myth that originated in Eastern Europe. The 2008 vampire flick Let the Right One In, based on Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s bestselling debut novel, was a chiller.
Lindqvuist’s 2012 short story Border (Gräns), which truly does have local, unearthly roots, has been adapted, with Isabella Eklöf and Ali Abbasi, as Sweden’s Foreign Language entry for the 2018 Academy Awards. Abbasi also directs, his second long-form effort after the 2016 mostly-English-language horror entry Shelley (currently available on Netflix). It is a marked improvement for the budding auteur, but naturally not on par (yet) with Ingmar Bergman, the only director to win (three times) an Oscar in the foreign language category for the Kingdom of Sweden. While the country has seen its two recent submissions earn finalist nominations (A Man Called Ove and The Square), there’s no telling how Abbasi’s offbeat tale of self-realization might reflect with members of this year’s awards committee.
Like Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, Swedish actress Eva Melander put on 40 pounds (and oodles of “ugly” makeup) as part of her transformation into Tina, a sad sack customs officer with a face full of congenital defects. Part Neanderthal, part GEICO cave person, part whatever, she has a very peculiar talent – the ability to smell shame, guilt, and fear. If she worked for TSA here in the USA, she’d probably be suffering from PTSD as she inhales the evil essence of various politicians swarming through the Washington DC airports. In the smallish ferry port where she works, her talents are more subdued – without Marvel Comics embellishment – and she’s got impeccable instincts. When a suspect approaches, her nostrils expand and her upper lip quivers and curls – reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s signature facial tic. While most humans walk about with their mouths closed, Tina’s trap never closes – a mouth-breather showcasing her need of a good dentist and orthodontist.
Her uncanny ability foils a teenager trying to smuggle in illegal liquor and a businessman hiding some incriminating evidence on his cellphone. Yet a slovenly attired stranger named Vore (Eero Milonoff) with a scraggily beard, bulging potbelly, ruddy appearance, and a striking resemblance to her, gets by. His belongings reveal what he calls “a larvae hatcher.” (It looks like a bomb.) You sense her queasiness in his presence. “See you,” he tells her, as she lets him proceed, her lips still unsteady. Their rickety relationship, and the film’s deliberate pacing, builds the rest of the film.
It will be a squeamish ride. He likes to collect and snack on maggots. She loves to take barefoot strolls in the woods. You wonder if her growl is worse than her bite (her boyfriend’s dogs don’t take kindly to her), despite her animal instincts attracting the friendliness of numerous forest creatures. Why are each of them, struck by lightning as children, still frightened of any thunder claps? When Yore teaches Tina about the birds and the bees, her sex drive accelerates from zero to 60 in the most unsettling sex scenes you’re ever likely to see. Meanwhile, as Tina’s co-workers slowly begin to admire her crime-stopping abilities, Border takes on the air of a crime procedural involving a child pornography ring.
Tina is further unsettled when the man she has known as her ailing father opens up a Pandora’s Box of secrets that sends her running for the solitude of her remote home deep in the woods, a similar setting used in Abbasi’s first feature. It’s still not far enough away to crush the revelations that her life is taking a dramatic turn from a lame existence into something much, much fiercer.
With all the genres the film embraces, director Abbasi fluidly blends the slow reveal folklore doctrines, an over-the-edge love story, and a criminal melodrama into one heck of an intriguing web. Deep in the third act, following an unexpected roadside murder, Tina’s newfound feeling of her identity gets a jolt. It’s not just humans who can’t be trusted.
However unsettling you may find Border, its grip is as strong as its convictions. Melander’s muted performance opposite the flirtatious, rebellious character provided by Milonoff is electric. It’s not only their inhibitions they are shedding, but any security you might feel watching them reveal their inner souls.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).