Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist married the mundane with the miraculous in Let The Right One In, his acclaimed teen vampire novel that bore two equally superb films (the Swedish adaptation of the same name, and the underrated American remake Let Me In). Border, based on one of his short stories, is an altogether stranger affair, but achieves that same curious blend; drawing heavily from Nordic mythology but set in a grounded, Scandinavian present, this is magical realism with a heavy emphasis on both. It’s uncompromisingly weird, but if you can make it through the more uncomfortable moments — which are roughly every five minutes or so — it’s a curiously rewarding experience.
Eva Melander plays Tina, a lonely Swedish woman who works as a security guard at a border crossing in a bleak, oppressive-looking shipping port. (Director Ali Abbasi embraces the ugly, industrial side of Sweden as much as its green, pastoral offerings.) Tina is diligent and hard-working, and lives a quiet, ordinary life in the country with a near-abusive husband. She is also, we later learn, a troll — not the online kind, but the folkloric, would-normally-be-found-under-a-bridge kind. She has apparent facial deformations, something she initially attributes to a chromosome flaw, and depicted with remarkable (and Oscar-nominated) make-up and prosthetics, which tread a delicate line between fantasy and real-world disability. Her appearance leaves her ostracised by most people she encounters, but she has a special relationship with animals and a unique talent for smelling guilt, an invaluable tool in her line of work.
A unique, captivatingly grotesque fable.
Then along comes Vore (Milonoff), a swaggering, care-free wanderer who possesses the same facial deformities and unique scars as Tina. Soon her perspective changes. She comes to understand herself more, and her place in the world. Elements of troll lore are played upon (their fear of lightning, their love of maggots, the human fear of changelings) — not as some sort of superhero origin story but as a journey of personal self-discovery, an intimate exploration of a minority identity coming to terms with their place in the world.
As Tina and Vore grow closer, they find solidarity through romance — leading to surely the most jaw-droppingly peculiar sex scene in cinema history. But when a distressing subplot about a child pornography ring is worked into the main plot, it develops into an over-dramatic and slightly unnecessary twist, in a film which, until then, felt consciously and deliberately under-dramatic.
Still, the intentions of director Ali Abbasi seem clear. Border is a unique, well-executed and captivatingly grotesque fable. It may not be for everyone, but if you’re the sort of person who feels cinema has been lacking sex scenes with extendable troll micro-penises, then friend, your wait is over.