You would think permissive, immigrant-welcoming Sweden wouldn’t need a customs service, but they rather quaintly insist on upholding their own duty and controlled substance laws. Nobody is better at detecting contraband than Tina, a not particularly photogenic customs agent. She can literally sniff it out. To put it more accurately, she can smell the guilt and shame that comes with law-breaking. That is just something she has always been able to do, but a stranger will finally explain to her why in Ali Abbasi’s Border (trailer here), Sweden’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens this Friday in New York and San Francisco.
Tina leads a quiet, semi-desperate life. When not busting small time smugglers, she visits her dementia-addled father and half-heartedly hangs with her roommate and not-really-boyfriend, Roland, a sleazy dog-trainer. However, things are about to get more interesting—on two fronts. When Tina busts a scummy jerk carrying a flash-drive loaded with child pornography, she is welcomed into a national level investigation, whose director finds her unique skill set quite useful.
Much to her surprise, Tina also comes face-to-face with a similarly unattractive man, who shares her abilities. Vore is a frequent traveler, who has had more contact with their kind. What kind would that be? That would be telling, but considering Border is based on a short story written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of Let the Right One In, who also collaborated on the screenplay, it is probably safe to expect something fantastical—yet presented in a scrupulously grounded kind of way.
Tina’s relationship with Vore is indeed strange and intense, especially when he starts to reveal his secrets. Border throws a bunch of myths and lore into the blender, including the Changeling legend. Frankly, the title is a bit misleading (at least in this day and age), because this is really not an immigration advocacy film. Of course, there is an unambiguous message regarding tolerance, but it is almost sabotaged by the shocking third act revelations.
Despite the heavy makeup and facial prosthetics, Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff are both terrific as Tina and Vore, respectively. They really dive deeply into their characters social alienation, simmering resentment, and existential fatalism. These are some pretty dramatic character development arcs, but they cover them quite nimbly and convincingly. Jörgen Thorsson just oozes slime as Roland, whereas Ann Petrén is quite the commanding and reassuring presence as the criminal task force commander, Agneta.
This is a quiet film, but it is still a technically impressive genre movie, starting first and foremost with the incredible makeup designed for Tina and Vore. Somehow Abbasi manages to fuse elements of gritty social realism with the look and vibe of a fable-like contemporary fantasy, but some of the tougher subject matter will make it off-limits for certain viewers. Regardless, it would pair up quite nicely with Ivan Tverdovsky’s Zoology. Highly recommended, Border opens this Friday (10/26) in New York, at the IFC Center and in San Francisco, at the Alamo Mission and the Smith San Rafael Film Center.