Border review: Horror-arthouse hybrid with a special creepiness

Eva Melander plays one of the richest and most original characters you will encounter in any film this year

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 06 March 2019 13:59
Border official trailer

Dir: Ali Abbasi; Starring: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Sten Ljunggren. Cert 15, 110 mins

Genre films take audiences to places where more conventional dramas don’t dare to tread. Border is perched intriguingly between horror and arthouse. Its hybrid quality gives it a special creepiness and pathos. The main character here is a customs officer who goes about her job in a very feral fashion. When someone suspicious steps off the ferry, Tina (Eva Melander) will start sniffing like a dog and her lips will quiver. She can smell what people are feeling. If they’re smuggling drugs or child pornography, she will know it immediately.

This is a Swedish drama made by an Iranian-born director, Ali Abbasi, and based on a story by the writer of Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Early on, it seems as unprepossessing as its own heroine. Tina is a lumpy figure with lank hair and bad skin. She is short, squat and self-effacing. As played by Melander, she is also one of the richest and most original characters you will encounter in any film this year – an “ugly, strange human with a chromosome flaw”.

Tina’s life seems very mundane. She lives in a cabin in the woods with her boyfriend. Every so often, she visits her ailing but still curmudgeonly father (Sten Ljunggren) in an old people’s home.

Lindqvist’s story takes the audience in several different directions at once. Border has some of the elements of a Scandinavian crime thriller. Middle-class Swedish families are up to no good behind their apartment doors. Tina’s uncanny ability for sensing corruption provides the authorities with the lead they need for a Wallander-like investigation. The film has some of the flavour of David Cronenberg’s body horror. You don’t want characters to look in the fridge in case they find larvae and foetuses alongside the lettuce leafs. Border is a family drama. The father is harbouring some dark secrets about Tina’s childhood.

At the border, Tina encounters a character even stranger and uglier than she is. His name is Vore (Eero Milonoff) and he likes to travel with a large amount of maggots in his hand luggage. While Tina is self-effacing, Vore is charismatic and reckless. Both are outsiders. Inevitably, they are drawn together.

The filmmakers touch on old superstitions and fairy tales about gnomes and trolls but do so in a very macabre fashion. They explore gender identity and fear of the other. The storyline might suggest this is some fantastical Frankenstein-like drama. However, director Abbasi treats his outlandish material in a matter-of-fact way. The scenes of the custom officers at work could come from some documentary about border security.

Beneath her layers of makeup and prosthetics, Melander gives a fine and moving performance as the customs officer with the unlikely powers. She is slow and deliberate in her movements and rarely displays emotion. At times, as she sniffs out corruption and malfeasance, she is like a hunter slowly tracking her prey. An outsider, she has had to teach herself defence mechanisms so she can fit in alongside everybody else in contemporary Swedish society although she is nothing like her compatriots. She is closer to nature than to her neighbours and colleagues. There are shots of her communing with wild animals and tending insects. Melander plays her as a hypersensitive figure whose powers enable her to detect wrongdoing by others but condemn her to experience everything around her in an especially intense way.

Border reverses the perspective taken by most other horror films. In more conventional genre fare, Tina and Vore would be portrayed as malevolent outsiders, but in the world conjured up by director Ali Abbasi, the humans are the monsters. Tina is the innocent – a visionary who hardly understands her own powers but who can sense human venality and corruption wherever it appears.

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