'Border' Review: A Tale Of Nordic Folklore That Questions The Division Between Man And Monster [Fantastic Fest]

Describing his time in Auschwitz, Jewish chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi stated: "monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions." The line between man and monster is obscure and when a person is a witness to wrongdoing, their reactions reveal their true character.

Filled with supernatural folklore and social realism, Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi tackles the constructs of monsters and morality in his new film, Border.

Award-winning Swedish screen and stage star Eva Melander plays Tina, a lonely customs officer who has spent her whole life struggling to accept the fact that she is different from those around her. She possesses Neanderthal facial features complete with discolored teeth, sunken eyes, and physical scars she carefully hides under her uniform. With excessive sniffing and the slight twitching of her lip, Tina is able to sniff out the unseen vices of man, including feelings of shame, guilt, and rage. Her ability allows her to confiscate the smallest amount of contraband and she rejuvenates the stresses of her job by retreating into the forest after work. Finding comfort in nature, she also possesses an ability to connect with animals, as fox and moose are not shy with their interest in approaching her. Feeling more connected to nature than man, she chooses to socially seclude herself aside from spending time with her estranged boyfriend (Jorgen Thorsson)  and her father (Sten Ljunggren) who is suffering from the onset of dementia while residing in an assisted living home. All of that changes once Tina encounters an intriguing stranger who bears a similar resemblance to her.

Vore (played by Finnish actor Eero Milonoff) also has the gift of a heightened sense of smell and slowly forms a friendship with Tina, introducing her to his nomadic and offbeat way of life. Their relationship eventually shifts into a romantic affair as Vore reveals his true identity and provides Tina the answers to her lineage. In doing so, she embraces a new outlook on herself and her life but quickly discovers a dark side to her origin. Vore's culture consists of cruelty and revenge – a stark contrast to the life Tina leads, even as her abilities cause her to become an assistant in a police investigation involving a ring of pedophiles and sex traffickers. Exposed to the suffocating depravity of mankind, Tina must decide how she wants to move forward with her newfound identity while keeping in mind the systemic trauma of her past and present situation.

Border pushes the envelope with its themes and delivery. The narrative is convoluted with subplots, character arcs, and rocky reveals. Many assumed based on the title alone that the film would be about the border between two places, specifically Texas and Mexico. However, the title instead implies a border between man and monster, ugly and beautiful, male and female, love and hate. There is a dichotomy presented that blurs the line between two seemingly polarizing concepts and utilizes folklore to drive the muddled marriage of abstractions. Exploring the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the morality of revenge, Border is ultimately a lot to unpack. The supernatural elements bleed into Norse mythology while alluding to ethnic cleansing and sexual abuse. Themes of sexuality and gender identity pervade throughout but miss the mark on an emotional impact or inclusive delivery. The concepts of good and evil continuously shift with the unfolding of various characters' backstory which provide a lackluster story of redemption at the end.

Melander gives a harrowing performance and is ultimately the anchor of the film. Her subtleties can elicit comedy while also honing in on animalistic actions that enhance the pain, love, and conflict that Tina can not seem to escape. Makeup and prosthetics designer Göran Lundström creates an impressive visual aesthetic to Tina and Vore. Throughout the film there are several close-up shots on their faces, and the effects strongly capture their characters' origins without extracting viewers from the story.

Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In), Border is a deeply layered tale that combines humanistic themes with mythology. Like the title suggests, the film lives on the edge of several genres while exploring new territories within the realms of love, beauty, and morality to convey what truly sets one apart from being a man or a monster.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10