One of 2018’s stranger and more beguiling movies rings in 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts, starting Wednesday. “Border” would seem to fall under any number of categories: Is it horror? Drama? Love story? Allegory? Maybe best to think of it as a chilly Scandinavian bedtime tale, the type to unsettle bothersome children and leave them identifying with the ogre.
Certainly Eva Melander gives a startling and sympathetic performance under a heavy load of facial prosthetics as Tina, a customs inspector at a passenger ship terminal in a busy Swedish port city. Tina isn’t just homely in appearance. She seems one step back or to the left on the human evolutionary ladder — part Neanderthal perhaps — and she has gifts to match: the ability to smell contraband and guilt on disembarking passengers, for one. Most people shrink from her; through Melander’s watchful presence, we’re privileged to see past Tina’s exterior to the compassionate, intelligent woman beneath.
Still, there are things the heroine of “Border” doesn’t understand about herself, meanings and emotions that start burbling up from her subconscious when she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man who appears to be from the same genetic offshoot as she. Vore is a proud outcast, animalistic in nature, but his self-possession and hostility toward “normal” people stirs something long dormant in Tina.
And here’s where I have to stop telling you what happens in “Border,” because the audience’s dawning realization of the facts of the matter is one of the movie’s most enjoyable aspects. I will say that they know how to ring realistic changes on folklore up in fjord country, if this and “Trollhunter” (2011) are any indication. Where that movie was a marvelous deadpan mockumentary, “Border” is a psychodrama that moves closer and closer to the edge as Tina gets in touch with her inner outlander. In particular, there’s a sex scene that stretches one’s belief, not to mention conventional notions of anatomy.
Director-co-writer Ali Abbasi works best when “Border” is operating in the gray zone between ambiguity and knowing too much, and as soon as the movie becomes overtly literal it also turns faintly ridiculous, while still deepening the chills, moral and otherwise. A subplot in which Tina’s olfactory gifts are used by a weary police investigator (Ann Petrén) to sniff out a child pornography ring is intriguing, if haphazardly folded in to the main story.
The crucial scenes in “Border” come just as the penny drops and we understand why Tina is who she is and why she has the job she does. Everything that ensues — and you may not be able to shake the images and events in this movie for quite some time — is just water under that bridge.
Directed by Ali Abbasi. Written by Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf, based on a short story by John Ajvide Londqvist. Starring Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Ann Petrén. At Museum of Fine Arts, Jan. 2-13, various dates. 110 minutes. R (some sexual content, graphic nudity, a bloody violent image, and language). In Swedish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.