Interesting character traits, shady people, and mysterious plot threads dangling in front of the viewer’s face should elicit a tense, interesting picture, but in Ali Abbasi’s new film Border, a Swedish film adapting author John Lindqvist’s short story of the same name, it just ends up a visually uninspired, narratively tepid slog.
Following Tina, a border patrol officer with a keen sense of smell, the viewer is treated with shot after shot made to look like they were composed with purpose, with the color palette inflected by a gray Scandinavian autumn. Tina’s life is pretty boring. She waits for the right person with the wrong things packed in their bag to walk across her path, visits her ailing father in a nursing home, and has to deal with her probably unfaithful boyfriend.
This changes once elements of the plot, rather than Tina’s own actions, change the course of the narrative. Due to Tina’s excellent nose, she is roped into doing some shady work for the local PD to catch a ring of criminal offenders. It’s not clear why Tina does this, other than the fact that she’s the best person for the job, and her life is empty otherwise. The second element, the one that actually changes the character, comes with the arrival of Vore. An enigmatic man who has a thing for bugs. There is a bit more emotional motivation going on with Vore’s plotline, with him revealing to Tina details of her past hidden to her from her father, and some pseudointellectual discussion on what it means to be human. The film would have engaged me more, however, if these two parts hadn’t really kicked in until about an hour into the film. Until then, all viewers get are quiet shots of backcountry roads and the occasional interaction with side characters that only serve as meat for the plot to advance, only slimly serving as anything for Tina to build off of in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say that the writing and direction don’t try. It’s clear that with a change in the character come new consequences, and with this being a film that combines mystery, mythological history, and thriller elements, the stakes will keep building, and a neat resolution will remain elusive. That part of the film is actually quite satisfying, not just emotionally but because it makes clear that the filmmakers know that what really matters is Tina’s journey of self-discovery.
It’s a shame that what hinders that is the film’s choice of genre, or perhaps it’s non-choice. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that Border’s story is literally and metaphorically about what makes us human, and treads the tired trope of using a particular genre to reflect our world, without taking the risk of fully embracing the requisite ruleset. This is what happens when you set up your movie with aimless visual drivel, only to throw in one plot that the character is not fully active in their pursuit of, and then layer up aspect upon aspect in the main plot.
As an aside, I do have something I’d like to say about the genre element of the film. If you’ve seen any advertisement for the film, you know that Tina certainly has an unconventional appearance. For the sake of not spoiling things, I’ll leave it at that. Tina’s presentation is unconventional. The reason for that can be boiled down to the aforementioned cliché of reflecting our world with genres that bend the rules of realism. But the only thing it shows is the filmmakers’ aversion to address real issues about real people. Kudos to the makeup team on Border, because I thought that Vore and Tina were real people. I really thought that I was watching a movie that didn’t star conventionally attractive white people (it’s Sweden but stick with me, please), but when Tina calls herself ugly and the film want me to think it’s being smart, but I have the awareness that I’m watching a typically pretty face wearing a ton of makeup, a discrepancy pops into my head which tells me that, rather than dealing with real issues of self-perception, the film is actually telling me to treat so-called ugly people as unhuman. It’s a misstep, and a pretty ugly one at that.