Ali Abbasi’s understated troll drama Border looks at first like it’s going to be a ... wait, sorry, let’s hold up. Can we briefly reflect on the fact that critics can now write the words “understated troll drama” without so much as batting an eye? We’ve had sensitive zombie romances, gentle cannibal dramas, moody vampire coming-of-age pictures and God knows what else. And sure, once upon a time, an unassuming, intimate story exploring the inner life of a mythical, cave-dwelling creature from Scandinavian folklore might have seemed genuinely innovative. (John Gardner’s Grendel was required reading in some high schools for decades, after all.) But the hybrid subgenre of emo monster movies now rarely proves fresh or interesting; frankly, it’s become passe.
To its credit, Border keeps the fantastical stuff to a minimum at first, leaning into the more realistic side of its conceit. All we know of our protagonist Tina (a very good Eva Melander) at first is that she is a quiet, somber Swedish customs guard working a border crossing and is also, as it happens, quite distinctive-looking. With her rough skin, heavy brow and wide-set eyes, she draws attention. She’s also unusually good at her job: She can literally smell fear, anger or shame. She can watch disembarking passengers all day long and tell you which one is breaking the law — who’s underage and lugging alcohol, whose passport has expired and who’s smuggling child porn. In the woods outside her home, she communes easily with animals, cavorting with deer and a moose.
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Nobody says “troll” at first, and the film initially keeps us in a gray area as to how exactly its world works. Tina understands that she’s different, but she doesn’t talk about it. Is this a world where magical beasts are known to exist and people just quietly tolerate them? Or is Tina’s difference a source of genuine mystery to those around her? Tina has a weirdly intimate yet sexless relationship with her (human) housemate and erstwhile boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), and seemingly little in common with her aging, ailing (and notably human) father (Sten Ljunggren), who lives in a nursing home and barely remembers her. Things gain some clarity when Vore (Eero Milonoff) walks through customs. He’s got Tina’s features, but he’s also confident and cool; his swagger strikes a sharp contrast with her mousiness. She can’t seem to smell him, and he knows it. He tells her that she’s not alone: There are more trolls out there like them, in scattered little communities.
Charismatic, and even a little cruel, Vore captivates Tina, and allows her to explore her true nature — or rather, what he tells her is her true nature. He teaches Tina to enjoy eating bugs; previously, she had merely admired and held them lovingly. He awakens her desires; troll sex, it seems, is a little different than human sex. He also insists to her that humans are worthless parasites who destroy everything around them, and that any evil that may be visited upon the human race is well-deserved. “If you feel different from them, it’s because you’re better than them,” he declares. He may be right, after all. Most of the humans in the movie are heartless or stupid.
Genre films that use our relations with aliens or monsters as not-so-subtle allegories for bigotry and intolerance are, of course, a dime a dozen. They’re also often antithetical to the humanism they preach. (If you need to compare immigrants to zombies or gay people to vampires, you’ve already lost the argument, no matter how well-meaning your intentions.) Border, which is based on a story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, initially seems to flirt with such symbolism — Tina works at a border crossing, remember — but, wisely shies away from that notion. Vore’s efforts to change Tina’s way of thinking feel like the manipulative proclamations of someone happy to have found a willing, pliable listener; they are assertions of power rather than evidence of any coherent ideology.
Border works best when it focuses on Tina’s transformation, on the way that her self-loathing leads to a gathering rage at the world inspired by Vore. It’s a very human impulse: We can understand the pull that such darkness may have on someone mesmerized by a big, bold personality. And while the film does take some twists and turns — some of them fairly contrived — it mostly drills down and explores its central character’s emotional conundrum without trying to draw broader, more symbolic conclusions about the world we live in. For that, we can be grateful.