* * * * ½
Border (2018, Swedish: Gräns, Dir. Ali Abbasi), based on the short story of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (writer of Let the Right One In, 2008) is not quite like anything you’ve seen before. It’s really best to go in blind and just let the world of the film – it’s unique setting, characters and story – unfold without any preconceived notions or outside context (with that in mind – there are innumerable spoilers here, so please watch first and read after : ) Border is a film about those who belong and those who do not; it is about predators and prey, and the animating power of compassion vs. that of hate. It makes us look at ourselves and question what it means to be “human”. What it means to be yourself, as an individual, and yourself as a member of a group; when are the two compatible and when are they irreconcilable?
I saw Border on its last night at Red River, and for a few minutes after taking my seat, I was the only one in the screening room. I started to wonder if this was why the movie was only playing for one week. Soon I was joined by a couple, filling out the audience. After watching the movie, I can say that it is clearly not something everyone will flock to. I would argue, however, that is their loss. The film is a kind of allegory, containing imagery and content which are at times strange and foreign. Two of the main characters are “trolls”, and the film depicts with care and sincerity their particular identities, anatomies, diet, and behaviors. But what the content and story of the film bring to the fore are powerful, universal emotions and the most basic “human” questions.
The visual and auditory landscape of the film takes its cues from the main character, Tina’s (Eva Melander), emotions and internal life. We feel her insecurity, unease, anger, and also her joy and growing sense of self. The cinematography of the film presents a world of stillness, with mists and fog permeating the landscape. This stillness is at times oppressive, others tranquil. Some of the most beautiful images in the film are when we see Tina interact with the animal world, and start to realize how her unique identity as a troll, and the heightened senses and perceptions that come along with it, enables her to connect with non human creatures. Early in the film, we see Tina stand side by side with a moose, both completely at ease. Later on, we watch as she shares a deep emotional connection with a fox, who visits her bedroom window during a time of distress. In one scene, Tina stops her car, sensing that deer are about to cross the road before they are even visible. Each of these magical moments is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, so as to steep us little by little in this altered reality.
The film is brought to life by the excellent acting of Melander and Milonoff, who both inhabit their troll characters with studied nuance. The story of the film is predominately told through the words of Tina and Vore, and the drama and conflict that come out of their relationship. Tina is a Swedish Border Agent, who lives in the country with her boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson). At the outset of the film, Tina is not aware of her troll identity. She believes her strange appearance and anatomy, her uncanny sense of smell (which enables her to detect human emotions like fear or shame, a useful skill for identifying criminals at the border), are a result of a chromosome deficiency. Tina has spent her life up until this point trying to adapt to the human world, with frustrating results. We watch as she is misunderstood at her job and completely neglected/exploited at home by her boyfriend (who, coincidentally, uses and abuses the animal world, training dogs to fight and betting on horses).
Tina’s encounter with Vore opens her eyes. Vore empowers her with the knowledge of who she is, and encourages her to celebrate her identity. Unlike Tina, Vore has long ago discovered his identity as a troll. And for Vore, along with this identity comes an abiding hatred for humanity. As Vore explains to Tina, his troll parents (among many other trolls) were studied like science experiments and ultimately killed at the hands of humans in the 1970s. In numerous moments throughout the film, we hear Vore express disdain for humanity, their culture and values. He longs to be wholly apart from the human world.
The conflict in the film comes from Vore and Tina’s differing perspectives on humanity, and what their troll identity means for them as individuals. For Vore, his identity as a troll means he is committed to visiting pain on humans. He takes this to the extreme, physically hurting human babies and aiding and abetting human “predators” (quite literally) who do the same via a kind of child pornography ring. For Tina, who has lived for many years as a human, and who has humans in her life who either love her (her father) or are kind to her (her neighbors), her identity as a troll is not a license to kill. While Vore is driven by vengeance, Tina is guided by an equally strong desire to do no harm. These differing perspectives eventually come to a head at the end of the film, when Tina turns Vore into the police for his crimes.
While both Tina and Vore hold fast to certain core values throughout the film, they also influence each other in powerful ways. They are each a kind of looking glass for the other, offering a privileged view into another possible life, and a reflection of the things that they might otherwise ignore or neglect in themselves . Vore’s anger and proud sense of self start to rub off on Tina. After hearing Vore’s painful story describing the exploitation of trolls at human hands, Tina confronts her human father, who has hidden her troll identity from her for years. During the conversation, her father reveals that he was aware of the experiments scientists were conducting on trolls, and knowingly lied to Tina about her identity and origins. Tina is furious at this deceit, and ultimately leaves her father behind, unable to forgive him.
Vore, for all of his righteous, seemingly black or white views, sees a confounding alternative in the example of Tina. In one scene, Tina furiously confronts Vore over his willingness to inflict pain on innocent humans. During the exchange, in which the two express their anger through grunts and growls (as if they are wolves vying for dominance) Tina shows Vore the strength of her convictions, ultimately forcing him to back down. We then watch as Vore tears up, perhaps recognizing for the first time the limits of his influence over Tina, the fact that she is truly different from him, and will not prescribe to his us vs. them worldview. Despite this and other moments in the film where Tina makes clear to Vore their essential difference, Vore retains a deep and meaningful kinship with her, giving her the ultimate gift of a troll child at the end of the film.
Long after the end credits roll, Border stays with you. You’re hearing the music, feeling the environment. More than anything, you’re picturing Tina and Vore living their lives, and wondering where they are now. I keep picturing Tina, holding her baby at the end of the film, smiling with joy as she realizes (I imagine) she will be able to give it a life that she did not have, and in so doing, live a kind of second life herself. I picture Vore, smiling at Tina at the end of the movie as the police take him away. Tina has just turned him in, a kind of betrayal and rejection. Vore smiles all the same, knowing the police cannot hold him, knowing he will chose where his life will go next. And knowing that Tina is who she is, and he is who he is. And that will not change. But, having spent two hours with these characters, will we?