Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 21, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Border (2018)

The other night, I said the Academy usually turns its nose up at horror. This has generally been true in all but one category. Historically, the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category has been a chance for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy to get some AMPAS love. Notable winners include “American Werewolf in London,” “The Fly,” “Beetlejuice” and “Bram Stoker's Dracula.” At least, that's how it used to be. Blame it on the declining use of practical creature make-up or on the overall gentrification of awards bait but Best Make-Up has kind of started to suck in recent years. The shift seems to have started around 2007, when biopics heavy in aging make-up - “La Vie en Rose,” “The Iron Lady,” “Dallas Buyers Club” – started to push out the monsters. This is how “Suicide Squad” ended up becoming an Oscar winning movie. Voters' unwillingness to venture outside of certain perimeters has caused some foreign language films to unexpectedly score nominations. Following in the footsteps of “A Man Called Ove” and that one with the long title is “Border.” And, miracles upon miracles, this Swedish language film does have monsters of a sort in it.

Tina has always been told that she was born with a chromosome disorder, accounting for her unusual appearance and abnormal reproductive organs. She also has a unique ability to literally sniff out hidden items, making her well suited to her job as a border control agent. Her ability brings her in contact with two strange men. The first of which is smuggling child pornography on his phone, a capture that sees Tina being recruited by the Swedish government to uncover a pedophile ring. The second is Vore, a man with the same facial structure as Tina. Strangely attracted to him, she lets him move into the guest house in her home. Soon, Vore reveals that the two of them aren't humans but trolls. While Tina is enthused to embrace her true heritage at first, she soon discovers Vore's other secrets.

“Border” is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of “Let the Right One In.” Much like that film and novel, “Border” is an odd coming-of-age tale and a love story between two monsters. Tina is a little old for this kind of plot but “Border” is, nevertheless, about her discovering her body, learning who she is, and finding her purpose. Accepting her powers and using them to fight heinous crime gives her a drive that was missing previously. The romance with Vore is driven primary by her coming to understand her own heritage, feeling accepted for the first time. This leads to an incredibly weird sex scene, a moment that combines the visceral, the disgusting, the weirdly funny, and the oddly touching. Watching Tina come into her own, accepting herself, is sort of sweet even if “Border” goes about conveying this in the most uncomfortable, creepiest fashion possible.

There is something of a divide in “Border's” narrative, as the troll plot and the crime story don't seem to connect immediately. Yet it's definitely fun in its own way. The scenes of Tina literally sniffing out various infractions, from small things like teenagers sneaking booze into the country to major criminals, are fun to watch. The details of the child pornography ring is sickening. (“Let the Right One In” had a pedophile subplot too, so it's clearly a point of grim fascination for Lindqvist.) Yet seeing our oddball heroine self-actualize against such a clear cut evil is worthwhile. The sleuthing scenes, of her collaborating with the government and using her superpowers to find the responsible party, are compelling story telling.

Most of the reviews of “Border” seem to dislike when the crime plot overtakes the troll-sex plot. How exactly the two plots intertwine is easy to predict. The hidden motivations of a certain character are heavily foreshadowed. Even the bizarre plot details of the last third, which features another squirmy monster and some more body horror, can be anticipated. Despite these flaws, I find this turn dovetail with the coming-of-age story. Tina suffers a loss of innocence, learning that she can't trust everyone. She is given a choice, between her human roots and her troll heritage. In other words, as sudden as some of these plot turn seem, they are just as much about Tina's growth as a character as anything from the first half of the movie.

It's pretty unexpected that a movie as weird as “Border” got an Oscar nomination. Apparently, this was Sweden's submission for Best Foreign Language Film, which is probably how it got the Academy's attention. Yes, the make-up effects are excellent. Tina and Vore don't look like special effects at all, just normal living things that happen to be exceptionally ugly. The acting is excellent, with Eva Melander as Tina remaining likable and vulnerable despite the heavy makeup. Yet a movie featuring explicit troll sex is not the kind of thing I expected to appeal to Oscar voters. Then again, in a post-”Shape of Water” world, I guess anything is possible, as far as hot monster lovin' goes. [7/10]

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