Just when twists have become overrated crutches, the improbably arresting Swedish import “Border,” from Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi, comes along to remind us of just how effective one — hell, why not two? — can be when deployed to deepen a tale rather than just upend it.
Adapted from a short story by “Let the Right One In” writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, the movie’s outer layer sketches in the isolated life of schlumpy, tight-lipped and genetically misshapen ferry-port customs guard Tina (Eva Melander), whose preternatural olfactory skills sniff out smugglers small (an underage drinker) and big (a smartly dressed child pornographer).
But all her senses are confounded by mysterious, flirtatious, leather-jacketed traveler Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares her atypical facial features and seems to know more about Tina than she does.
What happens when Tina and Vore’s circling turns into an intense, push-pull relationship of discovery is the emotional terrain “Border” operates in, and the contours of what Tina learns about herself, all while working a sex-crime case that grows ever darker, are where the story’s potent surprises lie.
There’s a not-for-the-faint-of-heart element to this strange blossoming, but it has less to do with overt violence — although there is some of that — than it does with the primal feelings and alarming physicality awakened by Tina and Vore’s bond. Without Abbasi ever giving up the character-study realism and bolstered by the leads’ tangibly demonstrative and unforgettable portrayals, Tina’s remote forest home slowly transforms from the setting for a fractured fairy tale of belonging into a thorny Nordic noir on the pitfalls of identity.
Selected by Sweden as its entry for the foreign language Oscar, the refreshingly offbeat, sturdily handled “Border” is not just unlikely to resemble any of its subtitled competition but also anything else you’ll see this year.
In Swedish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 26, ArcLight Hollywood