REVIEW: Gräns [Border] [2018]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 110 minutes
    Release Date: August 31st, 2018 (Sweden)
    Studio: TriArt Film / MoviePass Films / Neon
    Director(s): Ali Abbasi
    Writer(s): Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf & John Ajvide Lindqvist / John Ajvide Lindqvist (short story)

You shouldn’t listen to what humans say.

Customs officer Tina (Eva Melander) stands at attention while a line of passengers exiting an international flight walk by, her nostrils perpetually flaring. She’s sniffing them as a means of discerning which might have illegally undeclared possessions on their person. An “Excuse me” later and her partner is taking three bottles of alcohol out of a minor’s duffel bag, sending him on his way with a warning along the lines of “Our confiscating it is better than you going to jail on a smuggling charge.” Eventually Tina goes home to her boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson): a “hustler” in her father’s (Sten Ljunggren) words who’s currently boarding three very aggressive dogs that frighten her. It’s a cold, isolating life wherein her appearance and talent have rendered her an outsider.

Director Ali Abbasi‘s Gräns [Border] (co-adapted by himself, Isabella Eklöf, and original short story author John Ajvide Lindqvist) therefore can’t help but pique a viewer’s interest if for no other reason than discovering what’s going on with Tina. The way she can smell emotions (fear, anger, etc.) is a worthwhile fantasy trapping by itself, but this attribute is more or less placed on equal footing with the way she looks. The character’s “chromosomal defect” is noticeable enough to turn a rules breaker’s angry declaration of hate for authority into a bigoted remark whether intentional or not. Melander underwent four hours of prosthetics work each day to transform into something akin to the Geico cavemen and yet that face is nothing compared to what genetics did to her genitalia.

That reveal comes later, though. First we must understand her motivations and ambitions. She’s more or less asexual (much to Roland’s chagrin) and very dedicated to her work. Tina’s severe personality makes her perfect for her job regardless of her “gift” and an asset for the authorities once her nose uncovers a child pornography ring in town. It’s a case that means something not only because of the horror such a crime entails, but also because of the psychological abuse she endured throughout her childhood as “the other” amongst classmates. This is a way to protect innocents who might not be able to protect themselves. She wants to be a voice for them like we assume her parents were for her. Tina has finally found her true purpose.

It should come as no surprise then that her world would get turned upside down just when it seemed to be finding focus. Enter Vore (Eero Milonoff): a man with what appears to be the same defect as Tina. She sees him in a way that makes us believe she’s never seen anyone like her before. Her nose senses something amiss and yet his bag is clean (as long as you’re able to deem maggots “clean”). Since Tina is never wrong, her male partner goes into the next room to give Vero a full body search only to discover something no one was expecting. Rather than be the smoking gun as to some secretive criminal act, however, this revelation proves game-changing where metaphor, exposition, and foreshadowing are concerned.

Here’s where the knowledge that Lindqvist also wrote the novel on which Let the Right One In is based comes in handy as far as what to expect. This is a dark fairy tale that isn’t going to short-change its genre flair or emotional upheaval as two kindred spirits grow close before realizing just how far apart they are. I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s secrets so I’ll simply say that Tina will confront her very identity as a woman, daughter, sexual creature, and human being. Her eyes are about to be opened onto a brand new world wherein she’s as beautiful as she is normal. That sense of inclusion must ultimately come at a price, though. One she might not be willing to pay.

What choice would you make? Door number one lets you embrace a part of yourself that had always held you back psychologically. That which you hated with a crippling self-loathing can become your greatest attribute if you willfully condone the suffering of your oppressors at the hands of an avoidable fate you yourself have the power to stop. Door number two leaves you languishing in the same general malaise you have as a pariah—never to find genuine unconditional happiness. You will be forsaking your birthright to serve as an invisible hero to the masses, turning the other cheek as you save those same people that laugh in your face and talk behind your back. It’s queen versus saint, both options saddled with a downside you must accept.

Border is therefore representative of the geographical line separating Tina’s native country of Sweden with its neighbors as well as the one between nature and nurture. What she’s able to become is nothing short of miraculous and yet the consequences are sinisterly profound. Some would ignore them without a second thought because they’ll see the pain they’ve endured through a vacuum. They’ll see themselves as superior and in turn become exactly like their enemies. This is an eye-for-an-eye mentality that even the purest of heart couldn’t be blamed for contemplating. There’s complexity in this pause that Abbasi and company could have easily glossed over. By embracing it, however, they let truth empower Tina rather than corrupt. They ask her to acknowledge what she is while also honoring who she’s become.

It’s crazy to think about the depths to what Lindqvist created within his short story because there’s an expansive mythology hidden between the lines that he uses to define a single romance spanning two disparate worlds. There’s a massive sense of history to Vore’s revelation and an intricate ecosystem to what he’s currently doing under Tina’s nose with the hope that she’ll agree the ends justify the means. This is a reality not so different than our own with fantastical creatures beholden to the same flaws as us. In the end murder is still murder, abuse is still abuse, and life is precious above all else. We can do everything in our power—no matter how atrocious—to get the upper hand, but what will we lose in the process?

This film is talking about revolution and indoctrination as it places covert operations in motion that make the wild conspiracy theories of the present seem wholly plausible by comparison. One side seeks to experiment, dissect, and destroy while the other looks to escape, survive, and destroy. Let them fight and they’ll be no victors because nothing will be left to rule but ashes. The hope is therefore that it’s not too late to put a stop to the gears that have been churning beyond their purpose. We must have faith that people like Tina still possess the empathy necessary to remain enraged while also understanding there’s a line that cannot be crossed. With everything happening in America today as an election looms, however, faith seems all but lost.

courtesy of TIFF

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