One Good Movie: "Border" (2018)

A moody Swedish drama that tips eerily into fantasy.

One Good Movie: "Border" (2018)

I once calculated I’ve seen about 16,000 movies over the course of my life and career, so forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two. Occasionally one of the ones that has been swept under the rug of memory rolls out again like a dust bunny, blown loose by some stray wind of happenstance and rhyme. That’s how I remembered “Border” (2018, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, for rent on Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere) the other day and remembered that it was good.

Eva Melander in "Border"

It's a Swedish film that starts out as a character study about a most unusual character and then, over the course of its running time, sends out tendrils into several different genres: Romance, fantasy, police procedural, a folk-tale sort of horror. Throughout all this, director Ali Abbasi maintains a scrupulous and tenderhearted empathy for the movie’s central figure: Tina (Eva Melander), a customs inspector at a passenger ship terminal in a busy Swedish port city. A few things immediately mark Tina as different. First, she’s uniquely ugly, almost grotesque, with a feral aspect that makes her seem like she’s not quite swimming in the same genetic pool as we are. Second, she’s able to smell fear or guilt on other people, which both makes her remarkably suited to the job of customs inspector and brings her to the attention of a weary police detective (Ann Petrén) trying to sniff out a child pornography ring.

“Border” snuck under a lot of people’s radar in 2018, popping up on a few end-of-year lists and garnering a well-deserved Oscar nomination for make-up and hairstyling. Tina looks nearly Neanderthal, but we quickly come to see that she’s intelligent, compassionate, and shyly self-conscious. Still, there are things she doesn’t understand about herself, meanings and emotions that burble up from her subconscious when she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man who appears to be from the same genetic offshoot as she. Vore is a proud outcast, animalistic in nature, but his self-possession and hostility toward “normal” people stirs something long dormant in Tina.

Eero Milonoff and Eva Melander in "Border"

And here’s where I have to stop telling you what happens in “Border,” because the audience’s dawning realization of the facts of the matter is one of the movie’s most enjoyable aspects. I will say that they know how to ring realistic changes on folklore up in fjord country, if this and “Trollhunter” (2011) are any indication. Where that movie was a marvelous deadpan mockumentary, “Border” is a psychodrama that moves closer and closer to the edge as Tina gets in touch with her inner outlander. In particular, there’s a sex scene that stretches one’s belief, not to mention conventional notions of anatomy.

The crucial scenes come just as the penny drops and we understand why Tina is who she is and why she has the job she does. Everything that ensues — and you may not be able to shake the images and events in this movie for quite some time — is just water under that bridge.

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