A Swedish customs officer with a special talent for detecting contraband must ultimately choose between good and evil in the idiosyncratic thriller “Border,” an exciting, intelligent mix of romance, Nordic noir, social realism, and supernatural horror that defies and subverts genre conventions. Destined to be a cult classic, this absorbing second feature from Iran-born, Denmark-based director Ali Abbasi is based on a short story by “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose oeuvre and fandom is comparable to that of Stephen King and Anne Rice. Lindqvist also co-wrote the screenplay along with Abbasi and his Danish Film School colleague Isabella Eklöf. Neon has already snapped up the North American rights; other territories are going fast.
It’s almost impossible to write about “Border” without some spoilers, so those who want to preserve the thrill of discovery may want to stop reading here. The underlying themes are common to most of Lindqvist’s written work: people who are not what they seem and the crumbling of human civilization (here morally rather than physically).
One rarely sees an on-screen protagonist resembling Tina (Eva Melander, who gives a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic performance despite sporting a deforming latex mask and a more-than-four-hour daily application of prosthetic disfigurements). Her jutting forehead, wide nose, prominent teeth, blotchy skin, and body hair make her appear sub-human — and then there’s that mysterious scar above her tailbone. Nevertheless, Tina is a highly respected member of the Swedish customs team portside, with a perfect record of apprehending perpetrators. Like some tracker dog, she has an extraordinary sense of smell that allows her to sense guilt and shame. Even the Swedish police tap Tina’s unique talents in a subplot created by Abbasi and Eklöf that neatly expands the themes of Lindqvist’s original story.
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Tina also has a special connection with the natural world that Abbasi and ace cinematographer Nadim Carlsen illustrate in strikingly beautiful moments of magical realism. As she walks barefoot through the primeval forest surrounding her remote cottage, foxes frolic and enormous elk materialize. Even the family of deer crossing the road benefit from her sixth sense about when to stop her car.
While wild animals appear to love and trust Tina, she hasn’t been so lucky with humans. Although she has an endearing relationship with her elderly father (prolific character actor Sten Ljunggren) who suffers from progressive dementia, her parasitical housemate-cum-boyfriend Roland (an amusing turn from Jörgen Thorsson) is more openly fond of his aggressive show dogs and television than he is of Tina.
One day at work, Tina stops Vore (Finnish performer Eero Milonoff, so good as the manager in “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki” and positively thrilling, albeit unrecognizable, here) who is definitely not what he seems. With Vore, Tina finally finds a partner who completes her in every way and one whose special knowledge unlocks the secrets of her past. As the pair gambol in the forest and embrace in the lake, Abbasi turns that particular cliché of Scandinavian cinema on its head, because audiences have never seen a pair of lovers like these.
“Border” is far more accomplished and complex than Abbasi’s 2016 debut, the underdeveloped psychological horror exercise “Shelley.” Indeed, some might even say that he over-eggs the pudding this time, but now the various themes and backstory actually add up and are served perfectly by the visual and aural clues. Childbirth and supernatural infants, which were part of the plot of “Shelley,” also figure prominently here, but in a much more satisfying and clever way.
Just as “Let the Right One In” provided some unique contributions to vampire lore, “Border” etches the characteristics of certain creatures from Norse mythology and folktales. To say more would definitely be a spoiler, but Cannes audiences got the giggles over the way the film associates these creatures with Finland.
DP Nadim Carlsen (“Holiday”) again proves himself at the top of his game. With two such calling cards in a year, he is likely to be the next Scandinavian cameraman to work internationally. Kudos are also due for the excellent tech credits, especially Frida Hoas’ naturalistic yet fairy-tale-like production design, Christian Holm’s subtly eerie sound scheme and the prosthetics and visual-effects work.