As Disney finds the next title from its vault to adapt, Border explores what it means to truly update a fairy tale for modern audiences. What is a fairy tale, after all, but a story that explores the space where our world and the realm of spirits, demons, monsters, and other mythological beings overlap? It would then stand to reason that a fairy tale should be set not in the heightened reality of a magical kingdom, but in our own, with all of the moral ambivalence, absurdity, ennui, and horror that comes with it.
Films like Tigers Are Not Afraid and Pan’s Labyrinth explore magic as an escape from the atrocities of war, poverty, and violence. What sets Border apart is that this is a creature in our world that does not know her true nature, who has been living an uneventful human life with a feeling that she is different but does not know how to discover the truth.
Tina (Eva Melander) works as a customs officer in Sweden, selecting people to search for attempting to smuggle contraband into the country. She lives a relatively quiet life, though obviously stands out physically, with a face and physique that are evocative of a Neanderthal. She performs her job by sense of smell, far more advanced than any animal because she can smell more than substances; she also sniffs out emotion, intention, and guilt. She is able to detect a phone case with a hidden drive containing child pornography, and is recruited by the local police to locate the creator and distributor.
Meanwhile, she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), the first person she has ever encountered who looks like her. He appears to know the truth about both of them, and understands his place in the world more than she ever has. Vore is intriguing and confident, but his exact goals in Sweden, and with Tina, are unclear.
R, 110 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema
Though there is a mystery at the heart of Border, co-writer-director Ali Abbasi does not treat its secrets as a puzzle to be solved by the audience, or its characters as pawns in a grand conspiracy. We experience the story from Tina’s point of view, feeling her emotions with her, processing new information as she does, and sharing her curiosity about her origins and purpose. The truth is shocking, but when the twist is revealed, it does not become a different story. Everything we experienced before instead becomes recontextualized. It’s a marvelous way to handle a reveal such as this; once we know the truth, we still want to see what happens next. The emphasis is on the storytelling, not the gimmick.
Border was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and though the transformations are truly remarkable, the film is so much more than that. The quiet beauty of rural Sweden is the perfect setting, both visually and thematically, for Tina’s journey. Though its moral is more ambiguous than other fairy tales, it does convey the idea that the truth is not always the answer, and magical beings do not always bring solutions with them. Border isn’t always an easy film to watch, but it is quite gripping, and unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
See it again: Cruel Intentions
R, 97 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, March 23
Local theater listings:
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000