Review: Border

Nordic mythology is rich, old and popular but has only served as foundation for Nordic fantasy movies to a limited extent. Border is the Swedish arthouse fantasy that takes troll mythology to another level.

And that is not surprising, since the book that the film is based on was written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the right one in which was also turned into a hugely successfull genre movie (in 2008), even spawning an American remake. That film was about vampires; now Border takes on trolls, a fact that is not always communicated when the movie is presented in various contexts. This is, however, not a spoiler, because this film is something else than you expect from your average troll story. It’s not just different, it’s also great. Let it be said right from the start: Border is a masterpiece!

Customs officer Tina (Eva Melander) is known in the force for her extraordinary sense of smell. It’s as if she can sniff out the guilt on anyone hiding something. But when suspicious-looking Vore walks past her, her abilities are challenged for the first time ever. Tina can sense Vore is hiding something she can’t identify. Even worse, she feels a strange attraction. As Tina develops a special bond with Vore and discovers his true identity, she also realizes the truth about herself. Her entire existence has been one big lie and now she has to choose: keep living the lie or embrace Vore’s terrifying revelations.

Agreed, the basic premise about people discovering something about themselves and developing a better persona sounds like classic Scandinavian kitchen sink arthouse drama. Boring! Fortunately, Border is not about “people”. Neither Tina nor Vore are normal people. They’re a bit like… neanderthals? Last in line when God handed out beauty? From the beginning we understand they are “freaks”, symbolizing the vulnerable, unusual and not-quite-perfect that we all more or less feel, wether it is inside ourselves or in relation to a bigger group. This is not a unique theme in litterature or in movies. Also, different species living among humans as if it’s completely natural is a common premise. That’s not the USP (unique selling point) of Border; rather it is its strong genre story that sets you up to think you get it, and then it twists it around so hard you probably won’t realize the mindfuck until well after the end credits roll. It’s an entirely new mythology. This is Nordic mythology storytelling 2.0!

Border has, like Let the right one in, layers upon layers which seamlessly blend into the supernatural mythology that is face of the story. Social realism and old folk tales are perhaps not the most obvious bed mates, but here it simply works. Trolls are redefined, and so are other things we can’t go into without spoiling too much, and this is done elegantly without sacrificing any part of a movie’s most important asset; a good story. Behind the front, there are comments about how we treat minorities. No, it’s not “political”, it’s more an observation. The minority in question could be you.

Genre wise, it’s not easy to pinpoint Ali Abbasi’s second feature (his first was the Danish gothic horror Shelley from 2016). Border is a folklore fantary, but also a thriller and a romantic drama, and a tribute to the natural, with social commentary hidden beneath. The title Border (original title: Gräns) has very little to do with Tina’s job as a customs officer; the level of symbolism is not hard to detect. Frankly, the genres are not really important in the case of this film, as it’s not a traditional genre film, but it does use genre conventions like plot twists and special makeup effects to convey a message, unlike other arthouse dramas that “only” rely on dialogue and characters. In Border, genre conventions, overall story and characters are intertwined like nothing else in Nordic cinema, and it’s not difficult to be either entertained or challenged.

Border is visually, spiritually and thematically a sequel to Let the right one in, but stands on its own legs and firmly so.

Directed by Ali Abbasi

Sweden, 2018.