Sorry to start a review with a spoiler alert, but it’s hard to praise Border without ruining some of the surprises that make this film so compelling. The following assumes you’ve seen it.
For a film whose most obvious qualities are literary, Border’s success rests to a surprising degree on factors external to the source. John Ajde Lindqvist’s eponymous short story provides the film with a strongly focused narrative thrust, a succession of incidents that generate their own internal suspense while adding to the intrigue of the larger plot. Writer/director Ali Abassi’s adaptation of the story (in collaboration with the author, and writer/director Isabelle Eklöf) omits little but adds and alters a great deal, with remarkable effects.
The major elision is the memories of Tina’s experiences as a child, but the film doesn’t need them since the way her character is portrayed is both credible and interesting enough to arouse the imagination needed to fill in the blanks. The most significant addition to the original text is the invention of the child pornography ring. This is smartly introduced in one of the scenes in which Tina confronts suspected smugglers, then gradually developed as what seems to be a subplot, but eventually proves to be of strong importance to the story. The film arrives at a twist—and a climax of horror—when it’s revealed the child pornography business is something even more perverse than could be imagined: the means by which Vore perpetrates his scheme of exchanging newborn babies with short-lived ‘troll’ offspring and selling off the human ones to paedophiles. This added narrative strain, unspeakable as it may be, not only heightens the suspense but also strengthens the film’s emotional core, since it raises the stakes on the question of whether Tina’s primordial attraction to Vore could ultimately be strong enough to rival her disgust with the atrocities he’s committing.
The intensified conflict also serves to make the ending, another deviation from the book, more satisfying. In the original story, a contrite Vore announces his intention to be together with Tina and raise their child together. In the film, the considerably more sinister Vore escapes the police right after telling Tina the two may see each other again—which sounds like a veiled threat of revenge as much as a romantic gesture. In the closing scene, she receives their baby in a parcel along with an invitation to Finland, and we’re left to imagine whether she’ll raise the child alone in the woods or finally accept her monstrous lover for what he is. This way, the film avoids a ‘happy ending’ that would be at odds with the preceding bleakness as well as a ‘bad ending’ that would betray the emotional impact the film has earned up to this point.
In any case, there wouldn’t be any poignancy in the horror if the main characters and their relationship weren’t so convincing. And the credibility of Tina’s situation is also due to elements that don’t spring from the story or its alterations. One example, purely cinematic, is the central sex scene, transformed from the book’s uneasy romp in a cabin to an event of cosmic proportions in the woods. It’s a show-stopper, not only because of a reversal of roles in the sex act profound enough to make gender theorists salivate but also because it’s a more intense melting of two minds, bodies and souls than the book provides, and also because it so decisively signals Tina’s discovery of her true self. Another example is the quality of the acting: Eva Melander as Tina and Eero Milonoff as Vore (both unrecognisable) convey an impressive array of emotions from behind layers of prosthetics—from sadness to menace, from fear to lust. Furthermore: the film’s unusual tone, which finds space for both humour and terror. A scene in which Vore plunders the smoked salmon tray on a ferry buffet and subsequently terrifies an elderly lady who reprimands him is a neat example: it illustrates both Vore’s bestial nature and his hostility to humans and manages to be funny and disturbing at the same time.
It also helps that the general avoidance of clichés in the story extends to details peripheral to the plot. Tina’s oddly platonic relationship with the slobbish Roland, for instance, is interesting and believable because he’s not explicitly taking advantage of her; the fact that she tolerates his presence because she needs company means he’s free to exploit the situation. Each character meets the other’s needs; at the point when Tina’s growing recognition of her inner troll means the slob has to go, his pathetic exit is even somewhat touching.
The film lacks a visual style as precise and distinctive as that of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, the only previous full-length adaption of Ajde Lindqvist’s work, but it doesn’t need one. Its style and form are unobtrusive, and the CGI, convincing as it is, is used so sparsely that it draws no attention to itself. The focus is entirely on the story, its deeply satisfying execution and the wonderful acting. For Abassi, whose film school graduation project M for Markus (2011) and feature debut Shelley (2016) had conspicuously little purpose or narrative clarity but high doses of ugliness for its own sake, this is a major step forward. For Ajde Lindqvist, this is the second fully successful adaptation of his writing, and the bar set by Let the Right One In remains very high indeed.