It’s hard not to admire the audacity of co-writer / director Ali Abbasi for making a film as bizarre and frankly off-putting as Border. An ambitious misfire, no matter how messy, will always be more memorable than most things you see in a given year. Border defies easy categorization, and hence I’m inclined to root for it. Equal parts magical realism, romance, thriller and metaphysical examination of gender, this Swedish export is certainly weird. Sadly, it’s also a total slog.
Tina (Eva Melander, under heavy prosthetic makeup) is an airport customs agent who has a unique talent for smelling people’s fear. This comes in handy when, say, a shady passenger is trying to sneak some illegal contraband onto his flight. That’s not the only thing unique about Tina; physically, she resembles an extra from the set of one of those Geico caveman ads. People don’t seem to be fazed by her, however, save a rather rude gentleman who mutters “ugly bitch” at her as he strolls by. It’s apparent right away that Tina lives a loveless, lonely existence.
Life gets a little less lonely after Tina encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), whose neanderthal facial structure strongly mirrors hers. While Tina’s demeanor is kind-natured and passive, there’s something off about Vore’s vacant gaze, and it doesn’t help matters that his luggage contains a suspicious device rigged with wires and a timer. Despite these red flags, the two quickly develop a strong bond, and Tina makes several surprising discoveries about her not-quite-human origins. Without spoiling anything, their relationship evolves into something similar to X-Men’s Magneto and Professor X, except with way more boning.
About that sex scene. Even in a movie as strange as Border, it’s … a lot. The sequence aims for a kind of otherworldly beauty in two outsiders discovering their sexual identities within one another, but because the film never gives us any reason to care about Tina’s journey, it comes off as unintentionally comic.
It’s this ambiguity concerning Tina’s motivations that feels frustrating rather than beguiling. She’s kept at a constant distance that merely accentuates her surface-level oddities instead of exploring any humanity within. For a premise that sounds remarkable on paper, the whole experience is consistently dull without an emotional center to navigate through all the weirdness.
Further muddling matters is a subplot that takes the story into outright thriller territory, which is simultaneously repulsive and reminiscent of that South Park episode where Cartman became a psychic detective. It involves a form of infant abuse far too upsetting for the movie to justify due to how quickly it’s abandoned. Indeed, Border’s marriage of unsympathetic characters and distasteful plot threads creates a film that seems desperate for you to dislike it.
Visually, cinematographer Nadim Carlsem opts for a naturalistic approach to the fantastical material, creating several moments of drab artistry that are, at their best, reflective of the low-budget wonder of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. The effects, both practical and CG, are commendable considering their small-scale context.
There’s clearly an abundance of talent in front of and behind the camera here, and I’d gladly see whatever this team cooks up next. Border has much on its mind concerning gender, loneliness, and what makes us human. These themes are universal, so it’s a shame Abbasi couldn’t make them feel that way.