- Directed by Ali Abbasi
- Written by Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklof and John Ajvide Lindqvist
- Starring Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff
- Classification R
- 110 minutes
There’s always a movie during the Toronto International Film Festival that unexpectedly becomes the “one” – some under-the-radar project that grabs audiences by surprise, instantly sparking feverish word-of-mouth buzz. Suddenly, it’s the only film that matters: schedules are rearranged, schemes for last-minute tickets are hatched and absolutely everything else is pushed aside in the hopes of being among the first to feel that transcendent rush of discovery.
At this past September’s TIFF, the “one” was Border, a Swedish film that out of nowhere began dominating my social feeds and press-room chit-chat. Problem was, no one wanted to say what Border was about. The few who had seen it and were now raving about its merits acted as if they belonged to a secret club whose first rule was, “Don’t talk about Border.” I’d been instructed to not read TIFF’s press notes. To heretofore avoid Twitter, lest someone start spilling Border’s secrets. To “go in blind.” And so I did.
And here’s the most annoying part: Everyone was right. Director Ali Abbasi’s film is something close to a masterpiece – a powerful and beautiful work about finding your place in a world that wants nothing to do with you. It is a deeply humane work made with honesty and compassion, and its characters will linger for days, even weeks.
Oh, and also: I can’t really tell you what Border is about. I’ll go a few steps beyond all the tight-lipped TIFF attendees who I encountered, but to fully experience Abbasi’s vision, it is best to know as little as possible.
So, the barest of bones: Border opens on Tina (Eva Melander), a Swedish border agent who has a knack for sniffing out contraband. Tina doesn’t have much of a social life, living in a secluded cabin with a skeezy dog trainer who seems to be exploiting her generosity. Also: Tina’s face and body are unusually bestial. No one in her office seems to pay her physicality any mind, but as we watch Tina go through her day-to-day, it’s clear there’s something unusually special about her.
Soon enough, Tina’s world, and our understanding of it, changes drastically. After helping police bust a child-porn ring, Tina encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a gruff and cocky stranger whose similarly animalistic build suggests a strong but unexplained connection.
From there, Abbasi’s film, based on the short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Abbasi and Isabella Eklof), becomes a strange, beguiling stew of drama, rom-com, folk tale, fantasy, Nordic noir and horror. Saying that the film defies convention doesn’t quite capture it, because there’s no real convention for what Border is supposed to be. From its narrative arc to its enigmatic leads to its sharp-but-whaaaaat? execution – including one of the most peculiar sex scenes to ever be filmed – Border exists wholly outside the norm.
If this excess of abnormality sounds overwhelming, rest assured that Abbasi is deeply committed to maintaining a baseline level of sincerity. Tina and Vore are fantastical creations, but anchored with familiar burdens. Underneath layers of prosthetics, Melander and Milonoff offer empathetic performances that feel stripped down to the rawest of emotions.
Although Abbasi and his co-writers fall into a slight genre trap toward the end – one familiar to any fan of traditional crime thrillers – Border is otherwise a work of spectacular, unclassifiable artistry. Don’t read another word about it: just go.
Border opens Nov. 23 in Toronto and Montreal.